November 8, 2011

Lectures Are Good. There I Said It.

Unless you've spend the last several years on another planet, you've been hearing about how the awful lectures are for learning. Often associated with these phrases, "sit and git", "stand and deliver", "teacher directed"  or "sage on the stage" for many, the word lecture has become synonymous with the worst pedagogical practices possible. 

I don't think it's that bad. 

First let's define what we mean, or in this case, I mean when I think of the word lecture.

1. An exposition of a given subject delivered before an audience or a class, as for the purpose of instruction

‚ÄčThat is a commonly held definition and one isn't all that bad.  Remove the "delivered before:" part and think about simply an exposition of a subject. In that sense, reading a book or article, watching a video or listening to a conversation could be very lecture like.  Aren't progressive educators supposed to hate lectures? If so, why do we all love TED talks?

‚ÄčOkay, I get it. We're really trying to shift the balance of instruction away from teacher at the front talking to students to something that better leverages the time and space we share together. I'm all for that. But even in a constructivist environment, where inquiry reigns, there has to be some "lecturing" or content acquisition in order to make meaning. That can happen in many ways via exploration, discussion, etc. But the lecture isn't limited to a teacher talking or watching a video but in certainly is useful if there are some experts at some point exposing people to new and different ideas. That could be fellow learners who have crafted an argument or articulated a message using all types of communication and sharing methods. But even if you mean one person talking, that's still useful. Not as the only means of learning, not necessarily as the primary means of learning but as an effective, essential means of learning. 

I'm bias. I'm awed by someone who can speak for more than 5 minutes and keep my attention. It's not easy. I've given my share of talks and keynotes and I realize that I'm not sure I've ever accomplished it. However, I learn a lot by listening to others. I'm also in favour of using new technologies to allow interaction and pushback. The concept of a backchannel can be very powerful and it adds an important layer on a traditional lecture. But even without it, a lecture can be good. When we read the brain is doing very similar things it does when you're watching or listening to someone speak. 

Some folks argue that ideas like the flipped classroom are bad because it still promotes the element of a lecture. So what? If you agree at all with my premise, lectures are important. What I like about the flipped classroom is that it better utilizes time and space and makes use of the fact that people are in a room together and should have equal opportunity to share, interact and even lecture themselves. 

(Longer) Lectures fail when:

  • they're too long …I don't know the optimum length but you know when you've said all you need to say. TED talks work because of the constraints.
  • it's just about facts …give me a handout to read instead. You stating facts has no added value. 
  • there's no story or stories …this is key. We listen to stories because they have emotion. 
  • there's no passion or urgency …like stories I need to know you care about what you're saying. Show me that. 
  • there's no consideration of audience needs and interests …difficult but someone who conveys they have some understanding of the audience has my attention. Whether you're talking to 5 year olds or 65 year olds, they should have a sense you care about them. 

So please consider this the next time you denounce lectures. I think they're useful. And if you're going to spend more than 5 minutes giving one, do it well. Practice it and make people's experience listening to you a good one.