Trained in the Nancy Atwell-era, I’ve only ever delivered a mini-lecture in my classroom, which usually tops out at about 15 minutes. However, part of my responsibility is to prepare students for professors whose expertise and style may better lend itself to lecture. Despite a few bum experiences, I often found lectures illuminating and captivating as a student. Isn’t the ability to listen attentively a skill worth teaching?
In her Washington Post piece, “Breathing Life into the Lecture Hall,” Valerie Struass explores the current state of the classroom lecture in today’s colleges. Not surprisingly, professors talk about using PowerPoint and/or clicker systems to enliven their lectures and ensure students are engaged. At the end of the article, however, Strauss shares the observations of Julie Reuben, a Harvard education professor: “Professors often spend their adult lives researching a particular topic and feel they have a unique synthesis and understanding of the research. They want to talk about their work. And although the process of putting together the lectures is a creative, intense experience for professors, it doesn't always translate to students who have to sit and listen, Reuben said.”
Who hasn’t sat and listened to someone wax poetic about something he or she found fascinating that ceased to fascinate in the translation? And yet, I can’t help but feel that learning to listen to lectures, especially those put together creatively and intensely by people who “have a unique synthesis and understanding,” is part of what being a mature learner means. As students mature, their own learning preferences can’t always be at the center of the learning experience. By college, students should be able to listen to people whose complete passion for their subject eclipses their ability to monitor audience response. As voters, we often make our determinations through listening to speeches, to debates, to interviews. Learning to listen attentively therefore impacts the democracy, right?
I applaud the inclusion of visual bullet points and intermittent statistical assessment of who understands and who does not via PowerPoint and clicker systems, and I’ve used both. I’ve also prepared mini-lectures and worked on teaching note-taking because I think learning to listen to lectures takes practice. Yes, all teachers and professors should use lecture purposefully rather than habitually. Yes, teaching should not be about the professor’s ego and pleasure. I’m not about to start lecturing for half an hour in my classes, let alone an hour and a half. However, I’d hate to see the lecture go completely. The lecture is the snooty cousin to the speech which is the political root of the voting system. “Free education for all” means preparing individuals with the necessary skills to participate actively in their democracy. I know not everyone will learn best through lecture, and I think teaching methods should be varied, but I urge us as educators not to erase the expectation that people learn to listen.
co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher