Preparing Students for Boring Teachers

But they need to listen to lectures in college; don’t we need to prepare them for that too?

I’ve heard the argument plenty of times. Sure, all that fun and engaging stuff you’re doing is awesome, learning by doing, etc, but we need to make sure they’re ready to get lectured at in college. (When I taught middle school some people said the same thing about getting lectured at in high school.) This seems to particularly resonate with folks who aren’t teachers or who are new to teaching. Not sure why.

I disagree, pretty strongly. A few reasons:

  1. I’m skeptical there’s some special skills called “listening to a lecture” that students need to practice for a few hundred or thousand hours (by getting lectured at) in order to develop. Sure, we should think about students’ attention spans, but I’m skeptical lecturing at kids is the most useful way to improve a kid’s attention.
  2. If students are going to be lectured at in the future, it’s probably most important that they have a broad base of knowledge and skills so that the lecture makes sense and connects with their prior knowledge. I’m going to build that base of knowledge the best way I know how.
  3. If college is some dystopia of endless lectures, it underscores the urgency and importance of building students’ curiosity and love of learning so that they are in a better position to pursue their passions, regardless of the quality of some subset of their education.
  4. Colleges are changing faster than many folks think. Not that they’re changing very fast, but they’re changing. We’re talking about aiming behind a moving target. No sense preparing students for the past.


I was asked recently if I lecture. I don’t really know how to answer that question. Do I explain things, model ideas and strategies on the board, point out connections, and teach by telling? Absolutely. All the time. But I don’t think that has to be the defining characteristic of my teaching. In my class, students do math. I use that math to elicit what they know and don’t know, and based on that knowledge I may choose to deliver some explicit instruction. Maybe for two minutes at a time, maybe for twenty.

I don’t see a lot of value in talking in absolutes here. “Lecture” seems to imply that the teacher talks for the whole period, maybe bold students are willing to ask questions, and that’s the lesson. Proponents of lecturing seem to view the alternative as hippy-dippy projects, or aimless discovery learning. My teaching hangs out in the middle. Sometimes I deliver information. Sometimes I ask students to figure something out. Sometimes I ask students to practice a skill. This can happen in any order based on what tools I think are most useful that day. There’s no magic bullet, no one right answer. That intellectual work of figuring out what is going to work tomorrow for my students is probably my favorite part of the job.

7 thoughts on “Preparing Students for Boring Teachers

  1. xiousgeonz

    Thanks! This is one of the best answers to this question; I’ve tried to frame it and usually I just end up saying “well, if I see a kid in the middle of the road, do I run him/her over because it’s going to happen to them someday?”
    Indeed, I can learn from Boring Lectures because … I know enough and have the passion to render them not boring.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Yea, the knowledge piece is huge, and easily understated because it’s usually implicit. One of those things lots of people don’t understand about teaching and learning.

  2. Kelsey

    This was exactly what I needed to hear this week. I seem to be having this conversation a lot lately and have been struggling to come up with a good response. There is such a deeply entrenched idea that math instruction has to be boring and solitary and very one-sided. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words!

  3. Patrick Honner

    I’ve heard the “we have to prepare them for college” argument used in many ridiculous ways, including this one. It is a foolish argument, of course, for the reasons you suggest as well as many others.

    However, I think rebutting the argument on principle misses an important point: this is almost certainly an argument of convenience. This argument is about justifying practice and resisting change, not about any deeply held belief. The points above may counter this particular argument, but such teachers will simply migrate to some other convenient defense. It can get tiring following them around.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Makes sense — this is one example of a habit of lazy thinking, and not a lot of use in playing whack-a-mole if this is going to pop up in many different forms.

  4. Pingback: You Guys Are Great #MTBoSBlogsplosion | La Vie Mathématique

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