I think we have all suffered through a bad lecture. The unlucky among us may have endured countless of them. Let’s face it: there are many ineffective lecturers and even more horrible lectures. The bad rap of lectures is no surprise and, furthermore, well-deserved. But does that mean that the lecture format itself is to blame? Robert Talbert provides a slightly more balanced view of lectures in “Four Things Lecture is Good For.” Talbert asserts that lectures are appropriate when providing context, telling stories, or demonstrating how to solve a problem. Otherwise, he insists active forms of learning are the way to go. As a student in the environmental sciences that thinks we should all be outside playing in streams as a primary learning mechanism, I am all in favor of efforts to increase hands-on experience beyond the traditional classroom confines. I feel that well-designed courses already take advantage of alternative formats to some extent (although, of course, with much room for improvement); labs are integral in the sciences, and discussion is common in the humanities. However, I think that lectures also have a function in education and can be interwoven into these more active components for maximum effectiveness (and more than the four scenarios that Talbert mentions). Lectures may not always be the best way to teach every concept in every course all the time, especially in a dry, unappealing delivery, but to claim they hold little value may be a tad hasty.
Lectures have stuck around as a primary method of teaching for hundreds of years (see reference). Yes, this is contemporary pedagogy, and we are interested in how we can improve teaching for the future rather than remaining in the past. But I would argue than an integral part of looking forward is also reflecting on the past. What went well and what did not? The status quo is clearly not cutting it, but can we attribute that to the actual lecture format? Or have we all just been afflicted by one too many bad lectures? Molly Worthen defends the lecture in her op-ed in The New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.” Unsurprisingly, disgruntled academics trolling their Twitter accounts responded with a barrage of angry opposition. Worthen writes that students benefit from lectures by developing critical listening skills:
Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this […] But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.
Although Talbert admits that lectures do serve a purpose in some isolated cases, he decries, among other issues, how the length of lectures is ill-suited to the average human attention span. I whole-heartedly agree—we evolved to run around on the prairie hunting buffalo with spears, not listening to a long-winded lecture. However, we also did not evolve to do a whole host of things that current society expects of us, such as sitting in front of an LCD screen writing a blog, yet here we are. Just because we are not biologically programmed to do something naturally does not necessarily mean this skill is not worth practicing. Worthen continues:
Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people. Professors should embrace—and even advertise—lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.
Because I often think in terms of examples outside of education, the whole passive versus active learning argument reminded me of stretching (maybe it’s a stretch, get it?). In yoga or other stretching exercises, active stretches are all the rage. For example, a crescent lunge or lizard pose to stretch, among other muscles, the hip flexor. Active poses are great, but muscles actually like to be stretched both actively and passively. A passive stretch for the hip flexor would be lying on the floor with a low block below your tailbone, allowing the leg to extend straight to the floor in front of you. Chances are you will not feel intense sensations if you try this, but passive stretches are extremely beneficial in addition to more active ones.
I am also a little confused by the distinction Talbert drew between inspiration and learning, as in you can be inspired by a TED talk or church sermon but do not learn from them. Maybe I am singular in this regard, but I usually learn a great deal from TED talks? Given the widespread appeal of TED talks and other activities that involve, when it comes down to it, someone talking at you–stand-up comedy, television, podcasts, speeches, plays–I think it stands to reason that good lectures can also captivate audiences and promote thought. Talbert’s anecdote of listening to a sermon and enjoying it but not being able to describe what it was about, if anything, more firmly underscores the need for the development of an “analytical ear.” Imagine listening to the state-of-the-union address or a political debate and then discussing it with a friend. “What did Donald Trump have to say? No idea, sure was inspiring though” (kidding, totally kidding). Or worse, what if we are lucky enough to have another orator like Martin Luther King Jr., and a similar discussion ensues after his/her version of the “I Have a Dream” speech. “Yeah he had a dream about something, but there wasn’t an interactive component, no Twitter prompts during the whole thing, so I got distracted. Seemed cool though.”