Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Is the Lecture Really Dead?

It all started with a Facebook page called The Lecture is Dead. About a year ago I 'liked' it but now I'm not so sure. The page states 'In schools and universities the non-interactive lecture is an outdated method of teaching. Engaging pedagogy produces better academic outcomes and a richer, more pleasant learning environment'. What's not to agree with there? However, I've come full circle on lectures and no longer think the lecture is dying or even all that ill. Part of the reason why is that whenever I read something about how poor a teaching method lectures are, there's often something contradicting this within the article itself. Here are two examples of what I mean:

(Reproduced from http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Lecture-is-Dead/271794668781)

Enough with the Lecture Bashing

As a teaching method the lecture has long, long been criticised (for example see Bane, 1925; Bligh, 1972; Gibbs, 1981). The criticism probably goes back further than this and most of it centres around the lecture being a passive teaching method and its lack of effectiveness compared with more active learning modes. Academics such as Eric Mazur have promoted a more interactive style of lecturing, involving students discussing points and feeding answers back to the class. More recently, the concept of 'flipping' has become popular, whereby students cover lecture material away from class and the teaching time is then given over to more interactive modes of teaching.

Recently, I read this interesting blog post by journalist Anne Murphy Paul which mentions some amazing research by MIT Professor Rosalind Picard and others where students were fitted with wristbands that measured skin conductance as an index of the “arousal associated with emotion, cognition and attention.” The sensors in the wristbands recorded regular, strong spikes during periods of study, laboratory work and homework, but the readout flatlined during two activities: attending lectures and watching TV. The graph (below) of the students response is very telling with noticeable flatlining during the lectures but not, interestingly, always during sleeping.

Poh N-Z, Swenson, NC and Picard, RW (2010)*

However, whiles the research findings are clear, what I found really significant were the comments to Murphy's blog about this research, which seem to show that lack of arousal in lectures may not be an indication of lack of learning and contradict the flatlining in the graph above. Here are some of the comments:
Very interesting, though from my own experience I feel that I learned very well from lectures (and I also remember the content of books and TV programmes well too)… I agree that they are essentially passive but it is possible to be mentally engaged nevertheless. I genuinely can’t remember a single thing that I learned during homework activities. Perhaps the effectiveness of these forms of learning depends a lot on the individual. Jonathan Firth
...While I don’t think that lecture should be the only teaching strategy incorporated, I do believe that there is a place for lectures within educational institutions, especially at the collegiate level. I agree with John. Being auditory, I love a good lecture and often find myself listening to lectures on iTunes U to expand my depth of knowledge. I think what the professor does with the lecture is essential, as well as what the learner views as the purpose of the lecture is. Lectures don’t have to be passive... Stephanie Franks
Maybe they need to assess their lecturing technique at MIT. I studied psychology at NUIG Galway, Ireland, and found most if not all the lectures very engaging and worthwhile. Kevin Doyle

The authors of the comments above recall their own experiences of learning in lectures almost fondly. In a previous blog, 'What's Still Good about Lectures?' I wrote about similar positive comments in an online discussion by academics about lectures and lecturers. The idea that passive learning works well concurs with Murphy Paul's earlier article called 'Couch Potatoes, Rejoice! Learning can be passive' which espouses the effectiveness of passive learning through observation, especially if students are likely to practice or repeat what they are observing and/or have prior experience of what's being observed.

Another, very different, example of contradiction in lecture bashing is within a Guardian Education article by Anna Fazackerley which details Dale Stephens Uncollege initiative and his ethos behind it, described in his book 'Hacking Your education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will'. Whilst I don't have any issues with Stephens basic idea of debunking the belief that going to university is the only route to success, he contradicts his own book title by suggesting that non-students should try and "attend lectures" (without enrolling) because "the academics were more than willing to host someone who genuinely wanted to share their knowledge and learn". He seems to be suggesting here that, if you don't ditch the lectures, you might learn something.

So, perhaps the case against the lecture is not so open and shut. The lecture may not be popular but I'm off the bashing bandwagon for now.

*A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity
Ming-Zher Poh, Nicholas C. Swenson and Rosalind W. Picard. IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING, VOL. 57, NO. 5, MAY 2010 1243

Monday, March 4, 2013

Narrative, Story and Plot and Why We tell Stories

Trying to describes what narrative is and what it isn't is complex. It's Oxford dictionary definition is 'an account that presents connected events'. This implies a linear timeline of a series of happenings and that those occurrences are connected to each other. Author Jake Arnott believes narrative is a powerful force. In BBC Radio 4's 'Something Understood' (broadcast on 5 August 2012) he suggests that the instinct to create stories is innate within people and that it is essential to our understanding of both the world and our own life. Narrative enables a person to join everything together and make sense of the series of perhaps random and unconnected events that make up the life experience.

EM Forster furthers this in Aspects of the Novel and explains the distinction between story and plot. “We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. The point about causality is key here.

“The king died, and then the queen died” is a story. 

“The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. 

Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. 

However, Arnott takes issue with the notion of causality and argues that Forster's insistence that story, or more accurately plot, is 'mere' causality is wrong. He believes that story occurs without anything having had to happen and that it's not just an order of events. He cites Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' as a play in which nothing much happens, and yet it resonates with a powerful sense of story.

Arnott proposes something that I haven't come across before - this idea that story or narrative can be independent of a series of events. In the programme he describes how a piece of music or works of art can have a narrative and that narrative may just be hinted at rather than formed.

I like this idea of narrative that isn't obvious and it's interesting to think about how narrative can exist without anything having happened.

Related to this, on a vicarious internet search, I found this lovely YouTube video of poet Phil Kaye. In it he talks about the first type of stories that he loved - doing impressions. He calls them 'immediate stories' that happen through changing the tone, pitch and timbre of your voice to give an entire context of belief or feeling. It occurred to me that this is not dissimilar to Arnott's idea of independent narrative.

Kaye goes on to explain his thoughts on the important question of why we tell stories. He describes the often simple intentions behind telling stories - to entertain or make some laugh, to warn, to scare or explain. This last one, to explain, is quite close to what I am researching which is the the telling of stories  in teaching.
Kaye suggests that we tell stories to feel alive and we do this because we like to believe our lives are a linear and predicatable set of events, which they can appear to be if looked at retrospectively. However, surrounding the narrative of events are a whole series of what-might-have-beens if, at any point, a different decision had been taken. People like to reasure themselves that they can plot out their lives and perhaps that they can control that causality mentioned earlier but there is whole area of chance surrounding the events that happen to us that makes us feel vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that is the impetus for storytelling, so we can connect with others and feel alive by marking an event.
So Kaye concludes that we tell stories to feel alive by making context of our past (events) whilst recognising the vulnerability that exists surrounding the narrative.