I’ll admit that I don’t have firm opinions about pedagogy yet, and I certainly haven’t staked out a firm position in the lecture vs. discussion wars. From my own experience, I’ve had enough bad experiences in discussion-based classes that I am suspicious of those who would have discussion be the exclusive mode of teaching, but I’ve also seen lecture courses go badly — perhaps less so, but that may be because those who choose lecturing as their primary method are likely to be those who feel very comfortable with it, given that it’s seen as optional. For my own purposes, I like the idea of giving lecture courses because it opens up the possibility of using my lecture notes as work toward future writing projects, but then I also want to gauge the extent to which my students are able to follow what I’m saying, which requires some minimum of interactivity.
I will say that a lively discussion of a book by a small, engaged group is an ideal to be aspired to. Yet it seems to me that such discussions are pretty rare, even among professional academics (note how often people will express surprise that a conference session had good discussion). Such skills need to be cultivated, and of course you can only learn by doing. Yet there are also some base-level confidence issues that need to be addressed as well, and unless we want to cultivate students who believe that their every utterance is intrinsically worthwhile due to their precious snowflake-hood, it would probably be good to get them to a point where their confidence is earned, where it’s based in actual knowledge. We also need to get them to a point where they are good readers. That means being actual baseline good readers who are able to identify key themes, sympathetically state the author’s argument in their own words, talk about what each section of the book is supposed to be contributing, etc., etc. — that kind of stuff is the necessary foundation for the much-vaunted (and rightly vaunted! it’s a desirable goal!) “critical reading” stage.
I don’t think it’s at all clear that students typically come to college with those skills. Some will, but I think it’s much safer to assume that your students need help. I think that the assumption of baseline reading skills is doing a lot of work in the thinking of people who want more or less exclusively discussion-based classes — lectures, they suppose, are just trying to transmit information, which the books can do by themselves; then we can use the class time to practice our critical reading with each other. In such a mindset, the consistent report among students that they want more lecture (the popularity of great lecturers, etc.) indicates that they just don’t want to work hard during class. But I’m more inclined to trust students’ self-reports, including the reports of my own students so far.
We all want to be cultivating this high level of learning — critical thinking skills, etc. — and I think that’s absolutely the goal of education. The problem is how we get there. I think that lectures can play a big role in getting them to that next level if they’re used not primarily to transmit information, but to guide students in their reading and in certain modes of thinking. So if we want students to be good readers, maybe we say ahead of time what students should be looking for in their readings and give them an outline of the basic argument ahead of time (this was a definite request from both my classes). This will give them more confidence going in and give them a way of seeing what it looks like for themes to emerge or arguments to be strung together, etc. After a few classes worth of that kind of directed reading, perhaps they’ll be ready to begin drawing out themes and arguments themselves. Again, these skills are not something we should be taking for granted! And it’s not at all clear to me that imposing a straight discussion model on kids who are bewildered and disoriented about the readings is going to do much good for them (this coming from someone who experimented with a more “inductive” approach to reading assignments for much of the quarter — I know whereof I speak).
We do want them to discuss, but it seems to me that they first need to be comfortable talking amongst themselves about the subject matter — and the best way to cultivate that comfort may well be for them to study in groups in an old-fashioned lecture-heavy course. The process of coming up with easy ways to remember things is a way of putting things into their own words and getting at the concepts, something they’re much more likely to do if they’re studying with others rather than trying to memorize things alone in their room. Not having the pressure of having to “perform” in front of the professor might be helpful there. So even the much-derided process of studying for a “regurgitation”-style test has its role — and it also meets the students at the level of learning they are likely bringing with them from high school.
Overall, I think that the traditional models of education have an essential role, as long as they’re used in a conscious way. They have the possibility of covering up the flaws of lazy or unengaged educators in some cases, but then so does the discussion model — showing up with the book in hand and asking “so what’d you think?” arguably takes even less work than delivering a decades-old lecture. The goals of critical thinking, etc., are the only possible goals of a liberal arts education, and I support them without reservation. Yet you can’t jump straight to them, and I think that a lot of the ways people talk about pedagogy assume that you can — and just to summarize, I think that what enables them to do that is to assume that the books can handle the data-transmission just fine. We need to take seriously the fact that on many important levels, freshmen (and not just freshmen) don’t know how to read. It’s a fixable problem, but it’s a real one.