IST663 Module 5: Lectures

We’re shifting gears now from talking about educational theorist, Lee Shulman, to talking about an educational technique. For the rest of the semester, I will be blogging once every two weeks about lectures as an educational tool.

I’ll be honest, as with my choice of Shulman, I didn’t have a lot of options when it came to picking lectures for my topic. Most of the list of suggestions were taken. But I was thrilled that the topic of lectures was there for the choosing. I love lectures. I know that I might be in the minority, and I know that “lecture” is something of a bad word these days, but I genuinely love a good lecture. It is my favorite way to learn in a classroom context. Now I just made a very important point, so I’ll reiterate it: I love a good lecture. Part of the reason lectures get such a bad reputation, I think, is because it is so easy to give a bad lecture. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me back up.

As I was about to start my research, I started asking myself some questions and making predictions about what I would find. I thought that lectures might originate from a pre-literate time in our history; a time of oral tradition, epic poetry, and story telling around a fire as a form of entertainment and instruction. I also predicted that I would find plenty of disparaging articles about lectures, written by people who favor collaboration, and hands on learning.

Well, it still might be true that lectures ultimately originate from the ancient art of story telling, but the authoritative sources I have found so far tell a slightly different story. Lectures in academia (or in other words, in formal education) are about 800 years old, give or take a few decades. They do come from a largely pre-literate time in Western history — in the middle ages, before the printing press, lecturers would read primary texts to students. Someone else has already written an exemplary blog entry about this very topic. I give you Larry Cuban’s “The Durability of Teacher Lecturing and Questioning: Historical Inertia or Creative Adaptation?” (2011). Cuban links to an excellent article by Norm Friesen (2011) called “The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis.” For a more thorough history of the lecture, I recommend checking out these resources.

My second prediction, that I would find plenty of disparaging articles about lectures was right on the money. Popular culture, on the whole, thinks that lectures are outdated and boring. I’ll concede that so many lectures are! However, I feel that the definition of a lecture, in these cases, is too narrow. I posit that people still love lectures. TED talks litter my Facebook feed (Friesen [2011], makes this same point in his article); we use YouTube video tutorials to learn how to do so many things, from cooking a meal, to fixing a sink, to knitting (at least I know I do!). Clergymen and women still give sermons from their various pulpits. Even in our own online learning here at Syracuse, we have Panopto video presentations. To me, these are still lectures, and many of these are beloved by so many people. I echo the same question that both Cuban and Friesen ask in their writing: if lectures are so terrible, why do we keep using them?

So, what qualifies as a lecture and how can it be used effectively in education? Who likes lectures and why? What are the strengths and weaknesses as a form of instruction, and how do we push the boundaries of the lecture and adapt it in order to refute to assertion that lectures are totally irrelevant in the 21st century?

These are some of the questions I’ll be exploring in the coming weeks. Let me end with some questions for you: what is the difference between reading this blog post and listening to a lecture? Cognitively? Educationally? Practically? What if you used your text-to-speech function on your computer to have it read this blog post to you? Would it be a lecture then?

Cover image via Flickr user Joe Hardy, used under Creative Commons License.


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