What are we about? What do we want to be about?

Wow: This is what motivates us!!! What does it have to do with education?

Do lectures breed “blind obedience?” Do they breed acceptance of authority without questioning it? Do they offer the parental “lecture:” “This is the truth, and this is how you need to respond to it and to behave?” Do they avoid a conversation of mutual respect between people, some with expertise in the area under discussion (teachers/professors), and some with expertise in related or unrelated areas (students)?

They evidently don’t promote the kind of learning that is long-lasting and valuable, according to my institution’s very own website:: “Active Learning draws upon the concept of experiential learning, where ‘knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (Kolb, 1984; Dewey, 1938; Lewin, 1942). These techniques take advantage of what is termed the ‘generation effect’ in learning and memory science. In short, this effect refers to the finding that better learning occurs when an individual produces information rather than having it delivered to them (Slamecka and Graf, 1978). Research has also shown that students remember more when they learn to handle information at the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) because more reflection and elaboration is required of them (Huitt, 1992).

“In 1997, the American Psychological Association concluded that, ‘the learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an internal process of constructing meaning from information and experience’ (American Psychological Association, 1997). Compared to the traditional lecture-based approach to teaching, in which students are likened to sponges (Keeley et al, 1998; Fox-Cardamone and Rue, 2003) or bank-like depositories of information received from their instructors (Freire, 1970), active learning strategies emphasize constructivist qualities such as independent inquiry and the structuring and re-structuring of knowledge (Niemi, 2002). Active learning occurs while students are studying ideas, engaging in problem solving, and applying content. They acquire knowledge and skills while actively engaging in inquiry and are reflecting on their experiences (Silberman, 1996). Thus a key to improving active learning in the classroom lies in improving the quantity, extent and depth of students’ involvement in their own educational experience (Weimer, 1996).”

Think back to the time of the classical Greeks. Now, I don’t know whether this is literally true, but when I think of learning back then, I think of an old (male) teacher sitting under a tree with his (of course male) students. I picture the students, slate in hand, waiting to write down what the learned man is saying, because there aren’t any books, to speak of, and each student must then memorize what he has written down, commit it to memory, because he has to erase it for the next day’s lecture.

— Now, I know there was the Socratic method as well. But hear me out. —

Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and we have the mindset today (not among all, but among many) that we need to lecture. We need to “get it all in” within the 50 minutes we have each time. We need to be efficient. Quantity equals quality. So we lecture, as did that old learned man of Old, and our students write down what we say. They memorize it for the test, just as did the students of Old.

But why???????? The old learned man is not the only one in possession of knowledge, wisdom, and information today. It is everywhere!!!! In books, on the web, in video, among learned friends and acquaintances, if one knows how to access it and sift through to what is valid and what one needs. And the students do not need their slates, nor oftentimes their memorization, for if they need to access the ideas, they are still there. They are not erased every day. What is it that we are doing?

Secondly, today lecturing fulfills a huge economic, cost-cutting desire: if we fill our classes with 500 students, that surely will cut the cost of education, make us more marketable, and allow many more students to be pushed through the system.

But what, then, is learning? The following talks and RSAnimate events address the idea of learning. And it is my contention that lectures do not foster students’ creativity (an original idea that has value), because they are afraid of being wrong. It does not foster divergent thinking, which I think we need, because students do not have the opportunity to explore more than one possibility when listening to a lecture. It does not foster great ideas, which may need coffee and two minds. ☺It puts our students to sleep, and we need to wake them up. Ultimately, it does not foster heroism, but rather the Lucifer effect. And that is the most critical reason for education – to make heroes of us when the time is right and our heroism is needed, for ultimately, according to the research that Philip Zimbardo and others have done, the potential for good or evil resides in each one of us, and how we turn to “good” or to “evil” resides not simply in the individual, but in the systems of power in which we live.

The lecture may work sometimes. For example, the TED Talks below are examples of excellent 15- to 20-minute “lectures” – with well used visuals and visual examples. But those talks are something very different from the lecture in the lecture halls of our universities. And I choose the ones I want to watch. I am not a captive audience. I have looked at some, and I have watched but a minute of them. I look at others, and I look at them over and over.

What I think is missing from many lectures is the conversation, the freedom to choose, the freedom to be a partner in the act of learning, the intrinsic engagement of the audience, born of a life of having strong views about a topic. And they go on and on and … on.

Let me tell you a story. I recently attended a lecture on a topic, with students and professors. I was mildly interested in the lecture, because it was related to things I’m interested in. A student was sitting next to me. (I’m pretty sure it was a student.) As the lecture began, I was interested. Then I began to become angry, for the lecturer spoke as if we were experts in the field. The lecturer did not speak to me as an audience, much less to the students. The lecturer was demonstrating the lecturer’s prowess in presenting erudite and esoteric ideas in esoteric form – evidently a criterion for tenure and for promotion. As my anger subsided, I began thinking about the content of the lecture, and I began to use that lecture to make meaning for myself about the topic that the lecturer did not intend. And it was meaning I was invested in, not meaning the lecturer was talking about. … But how many students are able to do that, and if they do, how many are permitted to go off on tangents in which they are invested?

In my own mind’s eye, the ideal is the master-apprentice relationship. It is also the most costly, for it is a one-on-one between teacher and learner. But it works. And we use it — for the very elite at the level of the Ph.D. dissertation. At the other end of the spectrum is the cost-cutting 500+ classroom, run by a titular “talking head,” with lowly paid workers helping out and grading the papers (unless they are graded electronically). It feels like Ken Robinson’s “factory method” of education. It makes me think of Matthew Crawford’s (and others’, I’m sure) comments about the fact that we are educating the new factory workers of the future, the “white collar factory workers” who need a college education, but whose work will not be fulfilling.

Matthew Crawford went to college, eventually became part of a company that writes abstracts of articles. He thought – wonderful. I’ll be earning money doing something of interest, and I’ll learn a lot. Reality: Not. He was required to write about 27 abstracts a day, was not allowed to use his judgment at all, and ended up going back to his old hobby-turned-profession as a motorcycle mechanic, where he makes more money, uses his judgment to solve problems all the time, enjoys the process, and works for himself. He even maintains: go to college if you are passionate about learning. If you want to find a job, find one that will not be outsourced, one that is needed “on site,” like motorcycle mechanic, plumber, electrician, etc. Some good food for thought there.

Lectures tend to be boring. They tend to be angering, because they do not let the listener become a real equal conversation partner. They are angering because they do not allow me to interact with the speaker on mine, as well as his/her, topical ground. They seek to pontificate, they seek no invested response from the listener. They ask us to leave our minds at the door of the room when we enter. The lectures I choose are those to which I bring my own points of view, which have ideas with which I can work on future ideas, which help me address, maybe even solve, a particular problem I am having.

True learning, the best of learning, takes place in a context of mutual respect, trust, and — yes, caring. It seeks honesty from student and teacher alike, even when we/they do not know how to handle that honesty. It must include passion, desire, and learning the skills to be a hero — which means going against the grain of conformity.

Why not take all the lectures and put them online or in a book? Then have students come to class prepare to apply, refute, contribute to, problem-solve what is in the lectures, in the books, online?

Some thought-provoking sources which I quoted within the post as well:
RSAnimate Events:
Philip Zimbardo: The Secret Powers of Time

Sir Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms

Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From

TED Talks:

Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity

Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From

Philip Zimbardo: Why ordinary people do evil … or do good

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