Thursday, January 20, 2011

I Love Lectures (that's why I rarely give them)

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Confession: I love lectures.

Well, good lectures. Delivered by great lecturers.

Back in college, my life literally was changed by a series of lectures on Greek Archaeology. And I've had the fortune to sit before some of the greatest lecturers on the planet. Lecturers who are warm, funny, engaging, and fiercely intelligent. Lecturers who inspire you to push your own intellect beyond its presumed capacity.

But I'm an auditory learner. I know this. I know this is why I listen to NPR several hours a day. I know this is why I love jazz. I know this is why I did so well and learned so much in lecture classes despite the fact that I never took notes.

I also know that in many ways I'm an exception. And so, in my own teaching I use lecture relatively rarely. Instead, I tend to put students on tasks where they're the ones "doing stuff". Or, if I do have to lecture, I try to make the experience as conversational and inclusive as possible. Because I recognize that the way I learn best is not necessarily the same as the way I teach best.

Last night I started following a series of astronomy lectures from the Yale Open Courses. I've long had an interest in astronomy, but had never dedicated any formal coursework to it. Figured I couldn't go wrong beings that the courses are free and all. And so I've gotten through the first two sessions and I have to say I'm enjoying them thoroughly. There's a lot of smart stuff happening there -- both in terms of content and teaching.

First of all, the students are encouraged to learn in groups and then apply what they learned in those groups individually to problems. That makes sense to me and is a basic rule of how I approach teaching a foreign language. Secondly, the professor clearly states that there is no textbook -- because no textbook could keep up with what's actually happening right now in astronomy. Again, this is the same discussion I have with my graduate students when we talk about the state of educational technology. Finally -- and this really hit home for me -- much of the second lecture focuses on how and why mistakes are made in astronomy and what that means. And it was literally exhilarating following the prof as he set up the assumptions later to be knocked down. Throughout it all, the professor relied on nothing more than a notebook, an overhead projector and blank sheets of transparency, a marker, and his voice. And it was brilliant.

And I'm sure it would have bored the hell out of many a student and driven even more to check to see if it was too late to switch classes.

Because not once, despite what we all know is available in glorious color photographs, did the professor even so much as offer an image except for a single overly-Xeroxed black-and-white pic of a fuzzy star. Because not once did the professor attempt to engage even a single student in the hall except perhaps for a brief aside. Not once did the professor suggest the students could follow along with his descriptions via Wikimedia Commons or any of several telescope projects worldwide.

Nonetheless, I was enthralled. Because my type of learning is attuned to his type of teaching. And because I know where to go and how to supplement a lecture as I'm watching it. But if I were a different type of learner, would this presentation of astronomy be beyond my reach? How many kids with a deep love of the stars have felt that those stars were out of reach precisely because their introduction to astronomy looked like this series of lectures?

As teachers, we have to remind ourselves sometimes that our way of thinking is not the way of thinking. We have to remind ourselves that the point of education is not to go through the motions of teaching, but to go through the hard scrabble process of helping someone else learn. It's humbling, really. And speaking for myself, I know that I've got a lot of work to do to improve. Because there's a lot more than equations of speed and distance between our students and those stars.


  1. I watched the same lecture and enjoyed it as well, although I have to admit I didn't bother to follow the math very carefully. I understand the argument about how difficult it is to actually see planets next to stars.

    I felt like his argument would have been improved with a bit more explanation of why a fraction of an arc second is difficult to see. Sometimes I think numbers obfuscate an argument, rather than making it clearer.

    How could we adapt this lesson to students who want to learn by engagement? Could we do a much shorter presentation and include more engagement from the students?

  2. Fabulous, thoughtful post that educators everywhere should read and digest. I'm so glad this blogs continues. You are truly inspiring (something that I've rarely said to someone outside of my own family). Please keep the thoughts coming. Thanks!

  3. Love the way you dissected differentiation and learning styles without even mentioning Gardner or multiple intelligences. Strictly empirical!

  4. I rediscovered my love of talking with the students this week as we discussed (coincindence?) Astronomy. A simple question about square and cube roots pulled us into a conversation about string theory and conceptualizing multiple dimensions.

    I have found my catch phrase, I hate lectures but love conversations. I encourage every student to find a way to get excited about the topic through videos (God bless YouTube), up to date info, and statistics.

    Great and timely post, I look forward to seeing this blog with its many different voices discover its potential.


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