Lectures Obsolete?

Lectures Obsolete? July 25, 2016

From Christine Gross-Loh:

As a doctoral candidate interviewing at a liberal-arts college some years ago, I rambled, waded through pages of notes, and completely lost my train of thought at one point during my job presentation. Even though I was eventually offered the position, I was keenly aware that, despite interviewing for a job in which I’d have to stand in front of students day after day, I’d never been trained in giving a lecture—and it showed.

But that lack of training is not unusual; it’s the norm. Despite the increasedemphasis in recent years on improving professors’ teaching skills, such training often focuses on incorporating technology or flipping the classroom, rather than on how to give a traditional college lecture. It’s also in part why the lecture—a mainstay of any introductory undergraduate course—is endangered.

For some years now, students in MIT’s introductory physics classes, for example,have had no lectures, and physics departments at institutions around the country have been following suit. But while the movement to eliminate the college lecturefirst gained traction among physics professors, including the Stanford Nobel laureate Carl Wieman and Harvard’s Eric Mazur (a proponent of “peer instruction” who has compared watching a lecturer to learn physics to watching a marathon on TV to learn how to run), it has expanded beyond the sciences. Getting rid of the college lecture entirely is the mission of a broad group of educators.

Educators and administrators alike argue that active learning yields superior results to the lecture. Wieman recently issued a fresh plea to educators to stop lecturing. For Wieman, who sees himself more as a kind of cognitive coach than the traditional “sage on the stage,” the college lecture is like bloodletting—an outdated practice that has long been in need of radical reform.

But is it the college lecture itself that’s the problem—or the lecturer?…

In his book The Art of Humane Education, the philosophy professor Donald Philip Verene asked, “How would wisdom speak, if not eloquently?” It was out of the tradition of oratory that great speeches that changed the course of history were born: Imagine the world without Winston Churchill’s impassioned call in 1940 for Britain’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” America would be a very different country without the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr. The combination of hard-earned knowledge, eloquence, and passion endows the lecture with a singular power: the power to move and change its audience.


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