Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lecturing or Conversing

I was reading one of those articles about Bill Gates talking about education again. I should stop that. The man is a genius in many areas but education is not one of them. He was talking about recording the best lecturers again. Seems to be a common thread. The problem I have with that is that I don’t think bad lectures are the real problem. The problem is too much lecturing and not enough conversations.

Now I confess to loving to hear myself talk. Give me a platform and an audience of one or more and I’ll talk as long as people will let me. I just love to lecture. But what I find is that lectures only go so far and that so far is not very far. The real learning comes from conversation with students. Asking questions, calling on people who raise their hands, and then commenting on their reply is sort of like conversation. Like a small lake is like the Atlantic Ocean. We like to call it “engagement” but its really not that great.

Generally one or a few students do all the answering. If a teacher calls on someone without their hands up one often has to call on several people before getting the answer they want. And that, having a specific answer in mind, is sometimes a problem, call it a limit on learning, as well.

Increasingly I find myself trying to engage in a conversation with students. I need to do it more and that is a goal for me. I’m lucky in that I have small classes. My programming classes are 12 and 15 students. I taught at a private boarding school a few summers where that was considered large but for most schools that is pretty small. It gives me a lot of chances to talk to students in groups of a few or even one on one. I need to get the larger group conversing as well though.

People think when they are having a conversation. While just listening to a lecture it is far too easy to stop thinking. Trying naïvely to absorb the information without really looking for context or how the information might be used seems to work for many who are just interested in remembering things for the test. That is hardly learning in my opinion. On the other hand with active participation one has to think about what is being said. Information has a far better chance of being moved to long term memory.

In programming classes I find these conversations easier around projects than bare concepts. Context matters. Having a problem to apply a tool to matters. It drives asking questions and it drives understanding concepts. More of that is my goal over the next few weeks. Indeed over the rest of the school year.

How does it work in your classroom? Are conversations the rule or the exception? Can conversations happen in a large classroom? What about an online course? Or a MOOC with 20,000 students? Is the value of a classroom conversation what is going to prevent MOOCs from taking over? Or does it even matter?


Anonymous said...

I don't even see room for discussion. In my mind, a conversation personalizes the learning and allows students to ask for clarification and deeper understanding immediately. The whole notion of a "lecture" reminds me of university days sitting in a big hall taking Computer Science with a good professor. She did her best, she really did. But, this was not the forum for asking questions for clarification. We either had to head off and try it on computer ourselves or wait until our lab to talk to a TA. The class was every Tuesday and Thursday from 9-11. The lab was Monday at 5:30. There was no continuity at all. Personally, that's why I have trouble understanding the desire to tape lessons for replay. I think it gratifies the instructor and probably generates extra income. In the case of certain celebrities, it has elevated their presence. But is it effective? Not for me anyway. Even the notion of the "flipped classroom" relies heavily on the discussions or interactions the next day.

Unknown said...

My "lectures" are usually hands-on and filled with questions. I'll have students try to code what I'm talking about, and then have them talk about what the code does. Inevitably, there are errors, so that's an opportunity for conversation.

Garth said...

Learning to program by listening to a lecture is like learning to play basketball by watching videos. You might get an idea how it works but you cannot do it. Programming is a doing and tinkering "sport".

Jon said...

I find for any subject it is better to have a conversation. In college I remember reading the book first and then going to class. The class was just a rehash of the book. Unfortunately most students wouldn't do there due diligence and come prepared, also, the class would need to be small.

I remember one stellar student who didn't like going to lectures because he didn't learn anything by going to them, he would just go for the test and get A's. Unfortunately the collegiate (and H.S., etc) are set up with a single system not allowing for variance among students, wasting a lot of time.