The annual debate about the deadness of the lecture has generated a bit more light than heat this year with various helpful articles exploring the pros and cons of various pedagogies. For example, there was Rhett Allain’s The Traditional Lecture is Dead. I Would Know–I’m a Professor. My summary of it:
1. The Internet has changed education forever. As Allain points out, the traditional lecture dates from a time when knowledge was largely stored in trained human minds. The only way to access it was to sit in front of that mind and have its contents emptied live into your own mind. Now, all that information is available to everyone at the click of a hyperlink no matter when and no matter where you are in the world.
2. Most lecturers from the pre-internet age were boring (and some still are). As the lecturer was the only person who had the information and was the only one who could communicate it, there was no motivation to spice up the lecture. The “closed shop” or monopoly on knowledge resulted in lecturers just droning on for hours as they dictated the same notes they had read for years.
3. Lecturers now have to compete against the best teachers in the world. Students can walk out of a tedious lecture and find someone somewhere on the internet who is teaching the same subject with a lot more creativity and innovation. These videos can be paused and re-started at the viewer’s whim.
4. Students learn by doing more than by hearing or seeing. Research shows active learning is more effective than the traditional passive learning model, at least in science, math, and engineering. Hence more and more teachers are flipping their classes, having students read or view lectures outside of class and using class time for practice, experiments, discussion, Q&A, problem solving, and debate.
Chris Gehrz then wrote a rebuttal of Allain in an article entitled The Traditional Lecture Lives. I Would Know–I’m a Professor. If Allain’s description of the lecture as just disseminating information is true, then Gehrz agrees–just let it die. But he goes on to demonstrate that the lecture is about much more than this. It’s about transformation, not information – transformation that takes place in the following ways.
1. Asking questions. In addition to communicating information, the lecture is about asking questions together, which at least partly involves teaching students how to ask the best questions.
2. Learning to concentrate. The traditional lecture is training students to concentrate their attention, a fast-disappearing skill. It’s a mental workout that rids the mind of junky social media habits. Only prolonged focused concentration on a particular subject can make students forget about themselves for long enough to think about other people, places, and times in a way that produces enduring intellectual and moral fruit. For this reason, Gehrz bans all digital devices from classes, a practice I’ve also been following for the past year.
3. The practice of vulnerability. The best lecturers allow themselves to be vulnerable. Gehrz makes the case that the lecture has the potential to transform because it starts with someone performing. I love how he puts it:
Far from feeling powerful, I never feel more vulnerable than when I’m lecturing — stripped of the privacy and solitude my introvert’s soul prefers, exposing the extensive limitations of my knowledge and abilities (wondering if it wouldn’t be safer to facilitate discussion, and redirect attention away from my own uncertainties: “What do you think?”), and (if I’m doing it right) putting some of my deepest loves and joys (and sorrows) on full display for an audience that seems as likely to respond with laughter, derision, or apathy as with enthusiasm.
But that risk is worth it if some uncertain number of students find something winsome about the sight of a grown man showing boyish enthusiasm for the study of the past. If something is sparked in their soul and a love is kindled.
And perhaps that’s the most important key to a successful lecture–boyish (or “girlish”) enthusiasm for one’s subject that is contagious. One of the best lecturers I ever had was my moral philosophy lecturer at Glasgow University. He was a total atheist, but he was so enthusiastic about teaching philosophy that I looked forward to my 9am lecture every day. One of his teaching assistants gave us three weeks of lectures on Immanuel Kant, lectures that were more like preaching than teaching. I remember thinking, “I wish preachers had as much zeal as you do!” Twenty-five years on, I can’t remember the details of these lectures, but I’ll never forget the fanatical fervor of these teachers.
So, yes, the lecture has to change. The Internet has rendered the mere reader of lectures redundant. Much information can be more efficiently communicated outside of class hours using various technologies, leaving more class time for more interactive learning. Such transformed lectures have transformative power, especially if the teacher is able to convey passion for his subject in particular, and learning in general. Such lectures (and lecturers) will never die. I hope.