Don’t Blame the Lecture

A few days ago, the New York Times published the latest high profile story advocating for a ban of laptops from classrooms, mostly at the college level. They all point to a “growing body of evidence” claiming to show that students learn less and get poorer grades when they use devices during lectures.

I was going to chime in with my thoughts on the matter, including more than a few questions about the methodology and assumptions behind these studies. But marketing guru Seth Godin, who occasionally chimes in on education issues (and often makes a lot of sense), has already written a high profile response that has popped into my Twitter feed many times in the past few days.

While it’s not a great challenge to this simplistic nonsense, at least Godin is exactly right that the professor who authored the Times op-ed has missed the real issue.

The times they are a'changing

Why give lectures at all?

Why offer a handmade, real-time oration for a small audience of students—students who are expected to slow down their clock speed, listen attentively and take good notes at the very same rate as all the other students?

I know why we used to do it. We used to do it because a lecture is a thoughtful exposition, a reasoned, researched argument that delivers a lot of information in a fairly condensed period of time. And before technology, the best way to deliver that exposition was to do it live.

But now?

Godin’s recommendation to replace the live lecture – basically going to the “flipped” classroom approach and have students watch a recording of the presentation outside of class – is a crappy alternative.

But he does ask the right question: Why lectures? Why do we continue with the “watch presentation-take notes-answer test questions” approach to learning? Especially since it is becoming clear that this is not an effective learning process.

Which leads to the other half of this question: if we’re not going to lecture at students, what do with do with all that “precious classroom time”?

And it is precious. It’s a curated group of thirty or a hundred students, coordinated in real-time and in real-space, inhabiting a very expensive room, simultaneously.

The K-12 experience is thirteen years built on compliance and obedience, a systemic effort to train kids to become cogs in the industrial machine. And it has worked. One component of this regime is the top-down nature of the classroom. We don’t want to train kids to ask difficult questions, so we lecture at them.

Although teachers in K12 don’t perform as many lectures as college instructors1, most classrooms are still structured around direct instruction. With material structured by the adults and presented to students, who are then expected to extract the required information, and recall it on some kind of test at some later time.

In the end, however, my biggest objection to all these “laptops are making kids stupid” stories is that the researchers – and the writers reporting on their work – always start by blindly blaming the technology and the students.

And assuming our current educational structure is above reproach and needs no alteration.

1 However, the lecture format is still a fundamental part of many high school courses, especially Advanced Placement, which is essentially a college course adapted for slightly younger students.

Picture from Flickr and used under Creative Commons license from brett jordan.

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