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.

Traditional Innovation

Rand Paul, generally considered to be a leading thinker in the Republican party, is now also an education expert.

One example of the innovations he’ll be promoting: Paul said he’s fascinated by Khan Academy. He first became interested in the program while helping his kids with math and discovered Khan Academy online. “I remember a video on the Doppler effect, and saying, ‘My goodness, this is a better explanation,’” Paul recalled. “I took a lot of science and math growing up, and it’s the best explanation I’ve ever seen.” “If you have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus, that person maybe should teach every calculus class in the country,” the senator said. “You’d still have local teachers to reinforce and try to explain and help the kids, but you’d have some of these extraordinary teachers teaching millions of people in the classroom.”

In other words, Paul’s innovation is the lecture. It may be recorded, distributed digitally, possibly with better graphics.

But still a lecture, representing the centuries-old concept of learning as the one-way transmission of information from an expert to the student.

Because We’ve Always Done It

From the latest edition of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, titled Think Like a Child, this exchange between the host Stephen Dubner and Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. They’re discussing the differences between the way young children and adults learn about the world.

DUBNER: Implicit in that is while we have this strong set of priors, right, prior beliefs that we act on. And also implicit in what you’re saying is we have a lot of heuristics, we have a lot of shortcuts that we’ve learned work well enough, and so we do them always, right?

GOPNIK: Exactly. Let me give you an example in the universities for example. It’s a good example, my world.  We give lectures. And the origins of that are the days when there weren’t printed books, so you had one manuscript and the professor was reading from the manuscript because the students didn’t have books. It is literally a medieval instructional technique. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s kind of what you do when you’re a faculty member. And the fact that we have no evidence at all–in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary–that this is a good way to get anybody to learn anything, doesn’t keep us from doing it. Mostly we’re doing it because we’ve always done it.

I’ve stashed that phrase “medieval instructional technique” away in my notes for later use.

Gopnik continues.

I think what they say is, ‘Well, we’ve kind of always done it, and it seems to work OK, and we’re good at doing it.’ And I think, here’s the most relevant thing: It would take so much work to try and think through all the alternatives, and try them out and see which ones work and which ones don’t. That would just be such an effort that, even if maybe in the long run it would be a bit of an advantage, in terms of my short-run utilities, and in particular, just for me, it’s not going to make a difference.

Think about it. That whole paragraph could describe the American education system, even after the reform efforts of most politicians and billionaires are applied.

Blame the Technology… Again

I really hate when popular media report research findings with headlines like this: “Students’ use of laptops in class found to lower grades”. Too many people won’t get past that blanket statement, never questioning the kind of superficial research behind it.

For the study, published earlier this year in the journal Computers & Education, research subjects in two experiments were asked to attend a university-level lecture and then complete a multiple-choice quiz based on what they learned.

The results were pretty much what you might expect.

Those students using laptops to take notes who were also asked to “complete a series of unrelated tasks on their computers when they felt they could spare some time”, such as search for information, did worse on the quiz than those who didn’t do any of that stuff.

In a second part of the experiment, those who took paper and pencil notes while surrounded by other students working on computers did even worse.

Of course, the implicit assumption here is that lectures are an important vehicle for learning, not to mention that a multiple-choice quiz is a valid assessment of that learning. And that use of the technology was the primary factor in the low scores.

I wonder how the results would have differed if the researchers had divided the subjects into two groups, those who were interested in the subject matter, and those who could care less and only were participating for the twenty bucks.

Ok, without any kind of research to back it, I’m going hypothesize that the single biggest factor in student learning is some kind of connection to the material. With or without a laptop.

Lecturing in High Def

At the risk of being declared obsessive, I have one more rant about the educational philosophy of Bill Gates based on the Fast Company interview with him. This time, his vision of that classic instructional tool: the lecture.

That’s one more goal: to revolutionize the lecture in terms of cost and quality. The idea that you can store video essentially for free should mean that anyone can watch the best lecturers in the world. Rather than a student getting one of 3,000 people across the country who try to teach beginning physics or statistics or remedial math, through a process of comparison, competition, and improvement, you get someone who is pretty special and has the budget to do something fantastic. Lectures should go from being like the family singing around the piano to high-quality concerts.

Transform lecturing by giving them better production values.

The high-budget video of a concert may look and sound better, but you’ll probably learn more about music by actually singing with your family around the piano. I’m betting Gates didn’t learn computer programming by watching someone talk about.