Monday, 25 November 2013

In defence of lecturing

There seems to be a campaign afoot on both sides of the Atlantic to blacken the reputation of the lecture as a method of teaching. Since I tweet under the name @historylecturer you will not be surprised to learn that I do not share this belief that lectures are inherently bad.

As a matter of fact when I was studying history at university I attended relatively few lectures in my first two years. I found that a ten-o’clock lecture was the enemy of study. One did not (as a student) get much done before ten, and then, with coffee afterwards, it was nearly time for lunch. I also discovered that many of the first-year lectures were not much different from chapters in text-books. My morning was far more productive if I got into a library by half-past nine, found a quiet corner and worked through till lunch. After lunch I might shift base to a different library. Looking back I think I got the balance slightly wrong; it would have been better to seek out a few of the really good lecture courses for the stimulation they offered. Doing my PGCE I attended a lot more lectures, some with profit, some without.

For there were some really good lectures, from which I gained a huge amount. I also discovered, as a class-room teacher, that lecturing – standing somewhere (not always at the front) – and telling the class things, was something I was quite good at. I have often had good reactions to my occasional public lectures and evening classes. I have heard some magnificent lectures in a whole range of venues. Taking all these experiences together I would argue that bad lectures are a waste of time and counter-productive, whereas good ones are an excellent part of an education.

So here are a few thoughts about the art of lecturing, what works and what doesn’t. I do not claim it is a comprehensive list.  Note well, though, that I am only talking about History Lectures. One of the more absurd phenomena in education is the attempt to make all disciplines the same.

  1. Are you handing out a set of photocopied notes that covers what was in the lecture? If so, why bother to give the lecture? Why not just post the notes to students? If the notes are as good as possible, what else does the lecture add? If the notes are inadequate, why issue them?

  1. Is all the information and explanations in the lecture clearly available to the pupils in the books that they can be reasonably expected to read for themselves? This applies at Primary 7, with chapters in children’s text-books. This applies at university. Obviously there is an important matter of judgment here.  What can your pupils be expected to read and understand for themselves? As far as class-room teaching is concerned, this varies from year to year. The good lecturer is flexible and responds to the needs of his audience.

  1. “Death by Power-point” is no joke. It is awful. If the words on the slides are more or less the same as the words coming from the lecturer’s mouth, never go back to that class. I have more than once attended lectures (on teacher Inservice training days) where the lecturer actually read out their own power-point slides. I’ve been to very good Inservice lectures, too. In good lectures the spoken words and the slides complement and support each other. My own method (and I found Power-point a wonderful thing during those last few years of my career when it was available) was to have statistics, graphs, quotations and pictures appear on the screen that would have an impact on the audience. I might or might not refer to them directly. Thanks to modern technology one can almost as easily have snatches of music or clips of film appear (though do make sure you have checked out strange venues well in advance! The technology is certain not to work first time).

  1. Do you merely read aloud a prepared text or do you speak more freely? If it is a prepared text we are back to point one. Why not simply post it out? But speaking freely allows for changes of pace, repetition where required, response to audience reaction and so on.

  1. If the lecture is to some sort of examination class (adult evening classes for general education may be a bit different), is it structured in such a way that it is clear, and easy to take notes?

  1. Is the lecture only one part of a programme of learning? Some adversarial writing on the subject seems to suggest that the alternatives are all lectures or no lectures. This is rubbish. Good lectures are integrated into a course and timed so as to fit with tutorials, seminars, research exercises, group-work, set reading, essays, making models out of cardboard (yes, I loved teaching Primary 7 as much as A-level) and so on.

So finally:

A good lecture is not merely a piece of writing read aloud. It is a performance art in which the sound of the lecturer’s voice, his body-language, and the visual materials used are part of the performance. The lecturer will use many rhetorical devices to enhance the performance, devices that are not available on the printed page. Because the spoken word is more ephemeral than the written, the lecturer can be bolder about throwing out ideas without a full apparatus of scholarship, and so challenge the listeners to think and debate. The good lecture will include time – not necessarily at the end – for questions and discussion, with an immediacy that is impossible in any other way. In a good lecture the lecturer will have some knowledge or expertise that the class does not have but which, by the end, they will have begun to share. In a good lecture all the members of the class will feel, up to a point, that the lecturer has been communicating with them personally.

Every teacher, at every level, should be self-critical at all times, and self-analytical. Keep an ear out for praise or criticism from pupils and be ready to adapt. Play to your strengths and use the teaching methods that you are good at. But if there are effective methods that do not come easily to you, do not cut them out of your lessons and do not go on doing them badly. Instead observe and listen to effective practitioners, go to training days – above all learn from your own mistakes.

My written pieces for Kindle, which I have called “Lectures” are not, of course, oral performances. Some of them are closely based on lectures I gave to senior pupils; others are not. I like to think that, as with good lectures, they can enable the interested party with a busy schedule to learn some new history fairly quickly, and be interested at the same time. They are listed here:

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