Debating the lecture: If so, how long should teachers talk?

The Lecture: The process by which the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either*

The term ‘lecture’, generally relates to university, where high level concepts are poured into empty vessels on a regular basis. However, for this discussion it also applies to any learning context where information/knowledge is transferred by the voice of one person to the ears of many.

How long should lecture be? The rise of the TED talk is interesting to think about.

There is definitely a place for expert knowledge and ideas to be shared in a one-to-many context and the TED-people are very smart at packaging thought-provoking and challenging ideas in an entertaining way (that’s what the ‘E’ in TED stands for). As a result, millions of people find out about a topic, from a knowledgeable expert in a 20 minute presentation.

TED talks cover a vast array of social, scientific, educational, spiritual and news-worthy topics. Friends and colleagues are regularly referring to and recommending TED talks on a whole range of subjects. These talks shape thinking and shake mindsets, all in 20 minutes.

Think about Ken Robinson’s talk. His first one from 2006 ‘…schools kill creativity’ is the most watched, to date, with well-over 8 million viewings on the TED site. It has shaped and inspired educators around the world, I repeat, all in 20 minutes. The increased impact of these lectures, is that they are not just in one place at one time, but are online and available for viewing at any time.

In researching this subject I stumbled across an interesting post by a writer and ‘lecturer’ on calculus from the University of Illinois, J. J Uhl, entitled: Why (and how) I teach without long lectures, He writes:

Simply put, today’s students do not get much out of long lectures, no matter how well they are constructed. The material comes too fast and does not sink in well. The students of the past responded by becoming quiet scribes. Today’s students demand more action and accountability.

So if a good lecture is 20 minutes long and you have an hour, what should you do?

  1. Realise that the transference of knowledge in the lecture has limited capacity, so plan the time carefully
  2. Get the people talking, engaging with each other and grappling with the ideas presented, this is when the deep learning really occurs
  3. Understand that the role of the teacher is changing

On this last point, there is a much deeper matter to think about, the place of the subject-specialist teacher in today’s education. Many teachers feel deeply that their value is in their own content expertise, yet there are so many places where students can now access knowledge. Where does this leave the subject-specialist teacher. The important thing to acknowledge is that even though the role of the teacher is changing, their input into the lives of young people is even more important, but it’s a little different in the 21stC.

The more I think about the place of the lecture in today’s education, the more I am convinced that access to good lectures that are short and delivered by engaging presenters have important value for learning, but by ‘access’ I mean not necessarily in the same room and they are definitely only one part of the learning process.


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