Thursday, September 27, 2007

If a Teacher Lectures and No One Listens...

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


Anonymous said...

I know my middle school students must prepare for high school and college, so I teach them to follow lectures by using storytelling as my standard lecture format. I give them instruction in cornell notetaking and use powerpoint and storytelling to shape my lectures and direct instruction. It is a great tool. It hooks and maintain the interest of students of all learning styles. It also allow me to reinforce character education topics that assist with classroom management. And the greatest by product of the storylecture format is the stories serve as a powerful mnemonic that help students to remember the key lesson. For more information:

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's a generational thing. At Southern Conn. State Univ., I was informed that I was taught by the "New Critical Theory" method, which is now passe(I'm a 54 year old lawyer, getting certified to teach English). Now I need to learn the "Reader Response" theory. This puts me somewhat at a disadvantage because now I have to disregard twenty years of education and all of the great teachers I had, who had the unmitigated gall to "lecture" students. Excuse me for daring to say so, but some lectures are interesting. Moreover, such professors, especially at law school, weren't interested in entertaining students. I know I'm sounding like a middle-aged crank, but it wasn't so bad. I recently went to a lecture at the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven, and the lecture hall was filled with people, admittedly many of them were my age or older, who were riveted by a visiting professor who was lecturing about art. Most people in the audience were people from the general public.
In the past 25 years, I have often attended a "talk" given by a Jain meditation master, in New York City, where he would start with a topic idea, e.g., "forgiveness" and he would talk for 90 minutes, without notes. Much of what he had to say was ex temporaneous, and he would vary his lecture depending on whom was in the audience. No one was bored; they paid to be there. Many of us were sitting on the floor, so our knees and backs got tired before our brains did.
Recently, a friend of mine told me her daughter, who is a sophomore at an ivy league college, prefers to take lecture-hall courses because she is tired of hearing her "A-type" classmates "blather on" showing how brilliant they are. She'd rather hear a professor, an expert in his or her field, deliver, Heaven forfend, a LECTURE.
Not everyone agrees with Kurt Cobain, when he said, "Here we are now: entertain us!"
-- W.Hart