Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What's Still Good About Lectures?

Have you ever noticed that once you focus on something, you start seeing noticing it more? In the past few weeks I've come across two online discussions about what's good about lectures or what makes a good lecturer. These have been interesting to me as a counterpoint to all the literature which generally focuses on what's not good about lectures.

The first of these sources I found very illuminating. It's an abridged transcript of an online discussion from March 2012 amongst academics on the theme What's Still Good About Lectures. It didn't set out to be a discussion on the importance of stories, storytelling or narrative as an ingredient for a successful lecture but it surprised me how much the discussion kept coming back to it. Here are some quotes from the discussion to illustrate this point:

"Lecturing is all about telling a good story".

"My history teacher was great. He didn't 'lecture', he told stories". 

"The best lecturers I have learned from are good story tellers. They knew how to factor in their personal experiences into the content material".

"Good lectures take you on a narrative journey through the material with the message/lesson the lecturer has crafted".

"I enjoy lectures that I relate to in some way... interesting story or illustration that makes the point".

The lecturers here are clearly reflecting back on their own experiences of good lectures and lecturers which shows what a powerful impact narrative and storytelling has and how stories resonate with listeners because they personally relate to them in some way. The discussion could easily just have promoted what contributors themselves do in lectures that makes them 'good'. 

This is sort of what seems to have happened in some of the second discussion on What Makes a Good Lecturer that I came across (and I think I actually participated in at one point) The comments are at The Guardian Higher Education Network May 2012. Here the discussion was less focused (probably because with so many contributors it was difficult to follow the thread) but still one point caught my eye because it came up again and again. This was the role of performance in face-to-face lecturing. I mentioned this in a previous post as I believe the performance element of lecturing has been somewhat lost with the rise in the use of PowerPoint. Here are some quotes that relate to this point:

"Yes there is something very particular and special about the embodied aspect of lecturing. about the nature of speech, and its performance. in a world of increasingly disembodied information, I think this is all the more important, and indeed, all the more attractive for students - if they can drag themselves there".

"A good teacher can take a lecture and use it to encourage reflection, debate and participation. Your post really resonates with my own interest in teacher as performer. If you love lecturing I am sure this must be the best starting point for a great lecture for your students".

But not everyone agrees with the idea of performance and lecturing, seeing it as less important than other factors:

"I would have to respectfully disagree with any equation of good teaching in HE with "theatrical skills". Far more important are rapport with students, congruence (genuineness), caring for students, intrinsic interest in your subject, in-depth subject knowledge. Theatrical skills are not essential, but are very common characteristics of good teachers. During my research one interviewee described "showmanship is like fast-food". This interviewee also recounted stories of a very calm, yet wonderfully inspiring teacher who used subtle humour to great effect, but could not really be described as an "entertaining" lecturer".

I've seen - predominantly American - lecturers engage with their students and throw them regular questions during the lecture, creating a much more interactive environment than the standard British rhetorical performance - beloved as that might be... I think lecturers who went through the British system are often uncomfortable with the idea as it seems too "school" like (and they don't like to have their performance interrupted)".

So what to conclude from this? Well, much, but I'd like to end with another point that came up in the discussions - TED! "Aren't TED talks really lectures?" TED talks certainly employ storytelling and definitely involve performance - are they lectures? 

The following Vimeo clip illustrates the power of stories I think for a business marketing view but the point applies just as much to HE.