Teaching History: The Five-Minute Lecture Rule

A MiddleWeb Blog

history_logo-bThis year is already shaping up to be at least as exciting as it will be exhausting. I have overhauled my unit structure, streamlined my annotation scaffolds, and added some new projects that align with Common Core and my own notion of the ideal social studies classroom.

As I thought about my first post here for the 2014-15 school year, I was overwhelmed with the number of things about which I could write and the amount I could say about any one subject. So I decided this would be the ideal time to extoll the virtues of brevity.

Brevity is great.

More specifically, I have been trying to keep myself to a very stringent five-minute rule when talking to (at) my class as a whole. I have not always been able to adhere to my rule, but having the rule in place (and telling my students about the rule) has helped keep me on course, and I have been able to foster a classroom in which cooperative learning is the norm.

Why five minutes?

clock shows 5 minutesI settled on five minutes for the same reason I tell my students they have three minutes to work on something I will actually give them 10 minutes to complete. A 10-minute rule would result in 15- minute lectures, which would eventually allow me to cheat to 20 minutes, and so on.

While I really do intend to keep myself to five minutes, I also know that going over still puts me under 10 minutes. Even five minutes comprises almost 10 percent of class time on most days, and I think it is better that my students are learning actively rather than passively 90 percent of the time.

I have also found that the best use of my time in front of the class is to clarify the instructions for an activity or to guide a brief discussion at the end of a lesson. The students who understand the assignment are bored if I take too long to explain it, and students who do not catch on after five minutes usually need me to address their questions in person.

Because I have students in mixed-ability teams, there is usually at least one person at every table who can explain the assignment to confused peers after I give a brief overview.

My students didn’t “get it,” can I lecture now?

More than any other subject, history presents the illusion of a shortcut to student learning. Even when we are focused on helping students to develop essential literacy and critical thinking skills, there is still a great deal of content that is covered in the process.

Students who struggle with reading comprehension and knowledge retention, as the majority of mine do, will often believe they have finished an assignment, despite the fact that they cannot tell me even the most rudimentary details about the text at the heart of the lesson. The inclination is to “fill in the gaps” with lectures, to make sure the students “know the basics.”

man lecturingThere are two problems with such thinking. One is the idea that lecture is likely to leave a student with a lasting understanding of the historical events you are covering. Most people remember very little from lectures. We in education often (though not always) represent those who thrived in more traditional classroom environments, so it is only natural to assume that we could just tell a kid something and they will understand and remember it. This is – especially among my urban student population – simply not true.

The other problem is the sidelining of skills for the sake of content. This is not to say that content is not important. Without content, skills are meaningless, just as a recipe is useless without food. However, if students fail to incorporate content into their schemas after a facilitated learning activity involving texts and other media, then the students still need to develop the skills necessary to “get it” the next time. The focus should be on how to access the information, not necessarily the information itself.

Rules were made to be broken

Naturally, there will be times when it makes sense to be in front of the class for more than five minutes.

When I am introducing new units, I often take a moment to show the students a few maps, visuals or other aids that I think will help them as they read. During these introductory sessions I will field questions, and this means I generally go over time.

Additionally, if, as my students are working in teams, it is clear that one particular group understood the assignment in greater depth than others, I will ask them to share their ideas with the rest of the class, even if that takes more time than I allot for lecture. There are also a handful of entertaining 10- to 15-minute lectures that I have honed over the years that I still give because they are almost always well-received.

While I have lots more I would like to share about the classroom and my endeavors to hand the responsibility for learning to my students, I’m afraid I have already gone way over my five minutes.

Editor’s note: If you have more than five minutes, browse here to find other Aaron Brock posts about teaching history in schools where literacy issues are significant.

Aaron Brock

Aaron Brock entered teaching in 2008 and teaches middle school social studies in California's Compton Unified School District. He has a BA in History from California State University Northridge and received his teaching credential through UCLA’s TeachLA program. His love of history dates back to his own adolescence, and it is his goal to help students discover the aspects of history about which they can get excited. Follow Aaron on Twitter @HistoryBrock.

4 Responses

  1. kristin baker says:

    I am a student teacher of U.S. History and I would love to hear some ways to teach history other than lecture. What kind of activities do you do? My mentor teacher is primarily a lecturer but that is not my strong suit.

  2. Mary says:

    Yes, please share some ways to teach it without lecturing! Searching for ideas is how I found your blog.

  3. MiddleWeb says:

    To read more about Aaron Brock’s teaching strategies, browse this list of his other MiddleWeb posts.

  4. Aaron Brock says:

    @Mary: Thanks for reading. I have recently been doing a lot of work with annotation. There are ways to help wean students off of direct teaching through annotation, with the long term goal being completely independent reading, learning and evaluation.

    One simple way to bridge the gap between lecture and reading is to create a “visuals only” slideshow. After students have had a few minutes to skim a text, show them the slides, and ask them to mark the line or lines that go with each visual (pictures, maps, etc.). Then have students discuss with one another and then share with the class. This basically allows students to formulate their own ideas, then help one another correct any misunderstandings about what they’re reading. The teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding the classroom conversation to avoid outright misreading and to help students deepen their understanding.

    Of course, this should then be followed up by more in-depth annotation and writing (look for the “5Ws,” look for cause and effect, look for author bias). As students get used to the idea that they are the ones creating the meaning of the text through their annotation, they will become more comfortable sharing ideas and teaching one another as you provide progressively more sophisticated texts.

    Hope this helped (a little).

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