In my first year of high school History teaching, Jon, now my partner in 4QM Teaching, was my supervisor. One of the first pieces of feedback he ever gave me was that I was committing an error called “lecto-scussion.” A lecto-scussion is a mix of lecture and discussion. That means that you, the teacher, talk for a few minutes, telling students true and interesting things (we hope), and then stop and ask questions of students. Then you continue talking, and asking, and so on.
I didn’t really see the problem. Students mostly sat quietly while I talked and some responded when I asked questions. It was, to be fair, not what I’d done the year before, when I taught college classes. There, I would frequently talk to large groups for long stretches. I would still ask questions occasionally, and sometimes attempt to run something like a discussion, though in a decidedly Socratic style. That’s the best that a lecture hall with more than a hundred students would permit. (I hadn’t yet heard of this thing called a “turn-and-talk.” And no students had smartphones!)
There was another thing I didn’t get, either: narrative. At the time, it seemed to me that our purpose as teachers of Social Studies was to teach our students to make coherent, reasonable arguments about the human world. That’s what I thought I was doing when I lectured in a college classroom, and that’s what I aspired to do in the high school classroom. And so, I argued a bit, then I discussed arguments a bit with students, and so on. Lecto-scussion.
The problem is that narrative doesn’t work that way. Our first generative argument, Jon and I, was about the importance of narrative, which has now become the basis for the Four Question Method. Story first! Once Jon won that argument — his first and most significant achievement in educating me — I began to see why lecto-scussion is a problem.
Stories require continuity. They engage and are therefore memorable precisely because they encourage the auditor to make running predictions from the point of view of actors in the story. What will happen next? How will they get out of that jam? How will the victim of that heinous action respond? This works, it turns out, even when you know how the story ends, so long as you share enough information for the audience to make plausible identifications and predictions, but not so much as to flood (and bore) them with details. If you constantly interrupt your story to have a conversation, you lose the narrative drive that engages the audience.
That’s deeply ironic in the case of lecto-scussion. In the past week, I saw two otherwise excellent young teachers make the same error I did. They cashiered narrative drive in order to “engage” students with questions. Some were low-level questions of fact, others thoughtful and open ended. Makes no difference. They all suspended the story and squandered what makes it engaging to an audience. And they did so for the best of all possible reasons: to keep in touch with their student audience.
Seeing this problem in others reminded me of the real problem I faced as a first-year high school teacher. It’s true that I believed in argument, and still do. (That’s how we respond to Questions Two through Four.) But what was far more salient in driving my choices as a new teacher of high school students was their god-awful faces. When adults listen to a speaker, they look attentive. They make eye contact, nod occasionally, and try not to look like they’re suffering. Teenagers under compulsion — schoolchildren, that is — have neither the skills nor motivation to conjure such faces. What you get, instead, is typically a mask of indifference, or worse. I’ve had students come up to me at the end of the year and tell me that they enjoyed the class. I’ve been tempted to respond: no, you didn’t. I saw your face every day. You were miserable.
So you never know with teenagers. And, of course, it’s our job to know. We need to check for understanding constantly. We need to keep them attentive and engaged. Don’t we have to ask them a question every two or three minutes in order to do so?
The answer, of course, is absolutely not. What we need to do is, first and foremost, is to learn the stories we want them to know, and to know them ourselves well enough to tell them in a coherent and appropriately challenging way. Then we need to trust the story to engage our students. That means we need to tell it straight through, the way any good storyteller would. Then, and only then, once we’ve told our story, we need to check for understanding. For real. Not by asking a question that one or two students answer, and that signals the other students that the story is now suspended, which means it’s a good time to sneak a peek at Snapchat. We need to check the story by having them tell it themselves.
We’ve written before about formative assessment for stories. There are a million ways. But first, get the storytelling right. As Jon was coaching me back then, he would point out that lecturing is an extremely unnatural act, and therefore makes new teachers nervous. The idea of holding forth for an extended period while others sit and listen sounds like bad manners or narcissism. Doing so without skill or purpose is indeed an imposition and ordeal. But when we’ve got a good, important story to tell, we need to tell it, with authority. That means that we need to learn to trust it, too.