Sunday, March 11, 2012

What's the Use of Lectures?

After a lot of thinking, discussing and soul searching I decided last year that there was a topic I was so interested in that I wanted to spend a goodly amount of time researching it seriously. Fast forward six months and I have submitted a doctorate application to a university and am awaiting a decision. I am pleased and excited for several reasons. First, because I actually managed to find the head space and time to do some reading and thinking about my topic. Second, because I went beyond my usual procrastinating to actually writing down my thoughts and creating what I think is a reasonable proposal. Third, because I was organised enough to marshall my qualification transcripts, examples of other written work, references and my CV for uploading into my online application before the deadline. In fact, I think I should get a qualification just for getting the application in. Most of all I am excited because in doing all of the above I realised how much I want to do this research. For the first time in a long time I am  interested in something for its own sake and it feels great.

My research topic is the result of being influenced by two books - yes real books! The first one is a classic research text, first published in 1972. It's by Donald Bligh and is called 'What's the Use of Lectures?'. The second book was published much later in 2010, it's by Nancy Duarte and is called 'Resonate - present visual stories that transform audiences'. These two books are the ingredients behind what I want to look at which is whether the university lecture has a narrative or story structure.

Two books that have influenced me

Bligh's book, which has been republished many times in the forty years since 1972, details the plethora of research that has been carried over many years to show that (in a nutshell) the lecture as a teaching method is only effective at the transmission of factual information, and even at this it is no better than other teaching methods. In essence, this book and many other sources describe how unfit for educational purpose the standard university lecture is.

My starting point in thinking about the lecture was a growing dismay at the poor use of presentational technologies, such as PowerPoint, by lecturers during their teaching sessions. I include my own lectures in this.  Imagine the experience of the average fresher sitting in the darkened lecture theatre on week one of their degree waiting expectantly for their lecturer to deliver the very first lecture. The average student will experience between 250-300 lectures, probably most using PowerPoint, before they emerge after three years with their qualification.

When Bligh wrote his book, PowerPoint and Keynote were a long way off. So imagine that not only are lectures not an effective method of teaching, they may have actually been made worse by the use of new technology. That's not progress.

Stories, storytelling and narrative have long had a role in education, including higher education. Stories and narrative help with meaning making of experiences. Duarte's book describes how story structures are found in many great speeches, presentations and artistic performances and how they are fundamental to communication. So if a company wants to inspire change in its employees or if a politician wants to elicit loyalty in their followers, they use narrative to connect with their audiences, create support for their vision and effect change in people.

Here she is talking about her 'Resonate' approach.

My starting point on this was wondering if Duarte's ideas could be applied in a higher educational context to the humble lecture? Surely the goal of education is to inspire, move and change people. Perhaps narrative and stories offers a way forward for the much maligned (probably PowerPoint-based) lecture.

I hope we shall see.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Becoming Fully Cooked - Try Something New

Part of developing as a person, of becoming fully cooked as I describe it, is being open to learning. Learning something generally begins with trying new things. Most of us are willing to try new things but we are less good at sticking with them in order to benefit from the learning part. This is because learning tends to involve at least a small element of effort aka work.

I have a personal rule of trying something at least three times before I decide it's not for me but recently I discovered this TED clip by Matt Cutts who tries something new for 30 days.

A month is long enough to establish a habit and to achieve real goals or at least clear progress towards them. Since most of us are time poor, Matt's idea is that in order to create the space to try something new for 30 days, you would also give up something - usually something that's not adding a great deal to your life - watching TV trash, mindless internet surfing etc. 

So far using Matt's basic principles, I have managed to practice on my cello for at least half an hour everyday whilst decreasing my TV consumption. It's interesting how quickly, once you just accept you are going to do something, it just becomes part of your day. I've been rewarded by seeing (or is that hearing?) a real improvement in my playing. I'm still a beginner but I've a bigger and better repetoire and I'm closer to my dream of being a cellist.

Coincidently this article from the New York Times captures very well the joy of beginning to play a musical instrument once past childhood.