Lecturing Against Activity Based Learning

4. Amateur/Expert: On YouTube, amateurs rule, experts are deflated, and authority is flattened. While it is exciting to hear from new and varied people, and while this undoubtedly widens and opens our knowledge-base, it is difficult to learn in an environment where vying opinions rule, where data is helter-skelter and hard to locate, and where no one can take the lead. Again, the significance of discipline within the academic setting proves the rule. Without it, ideas stay vague and dispersed, there is no system for evaluation, and you can’t find things or build upon them.

5. Entertainment/Education: Today’s students, schooled on YouTube, iphones, and Wiis, want their information relayed with ease and fun: they want it pleasurable, simplified, and funny. They don’t want to be bored; even as they are always distracted. They want school to speak to them in the language they like and know and deserve. While I’m the first to admit that a good professor makes “hard” information understandable, this does not mean that I do not expect my students to take pleasure in the rigorous work of understanding it. While I have always been aware that I am a performer, entertaining my students while sneaking in critical theory, avant-garde forms, and radical politics, much of what I perform is the delight and beauty of the complex: the life of the mind, the work of the artist, the experience of the counter-culture. I am not interested teaching as a re-performing of the dumbing-down of our culture.

This article (here from Ars Technica: original report here) is timely. In some ways, it actually does relate to my Drama is not Preaching post, albeit it is much bigger in scope. Anyway, I am of the old school person who truly believe that Lecturing is the best way of conveying the study of something to a large audience of people. It is something that has to be recovered by the education system. Point 4 (from excerpt above) is often the easiest point dismissed when considering this whole issue of teaching. Instead, ABL (what some would call tutorial activities) is becoming (at least in the circle where I used to be) the missing ingredient that many tout as the best way of conveying knowledge to students. A good article critizing the need of lecturing can be obtained here. I recommend you to read it before proceeding on. 😛

I am not going to explain the terminology of both lecturing and activity-based learning. I’m sure we’re googled (it’s my own form of expression here :P) enough in our experience to be able to get a semblance of its terms & scope, without much sweat. (Before going further, let me say that I understand that the mode of teaching through lecturing may in some instances fall under a particular ABL scheme. But for this short opinion piece, let me just treat ABL as exclusive to lecturing).

ABL seriously presupposes that self-discovery is THE best way of learning a particular knowledge. To achieve that, one needs to ensure what type of activities are necessary and compatible for the person(s) being considered. Most ABL seeks to make things ‘lively’ and ‘entertaining’. And it encourages a lot of feedback, to get interactivity going. There are benefits in it, no doubt about it, if not why would we conduct tutorials in classes? But one of the things that doesn’t sit right with me is the fact that lecturing is being underplayed in modern education. The problem, as I perceive it, is the fact that we do not understand what it really mean to lecture. And more importantly, how to push it to its boundaries and make it effective in the ways it is meant to be.

Lecturing (as in other fields) needs to be considered in its historical setting and context. It is always done in the environment of religious teaching, which was (rightfully) considered the best knowledge that one could have, in older generations. Thus, history is expletive with examples of religious teachings and commentaries (for the majority of most organised religions). Many universities are founded on the basis of its religious needs and focus. And it is in this background that ‘lectures’ came into being.

Lecturing, of itself, is basically a long discourse given didactically to a group of audience, who are non-experts of themselves. That is the basic and fundamental premise of how and when a lecture should be had. Straight away it reveals; audiences that are composed of persons who are ‘semi-experts’ or ‘experts’ in the field of topic considered would render the lecture meaningless. The problem with our modern situation is that, no one wants to show that authority from the front of the class. In a world of relativity, we are confined to a mode of thinking that “maybe there is someone here who is better than me, smarter than me, etc.” and therefore in lecturing, no authority or quality is presented because of such limiting presuppositions in place. You will find that a lecturer who believes that the audience addressed is much weaker than themselves will most likely come out of the lecture feeling much better than one who goes in with adverse thoughts.

Thus lecturers ought to often reflect on the skills and knowledge which they possess and to ensure that what they are presenting is of value and is of consequence. Secondarily should the focus be put on the conveyance of the knowledge to the hearers. Let’s face it, not everyone is meant to lecture. Reading off slides for lecturer is as good as wiping a car with a damp cloth for a mechanic. Thus these two things ought to be at the forefront of their concern as a lecturer (who inspires to not disappoint their students and themselves); knowledge of subject matter considered & skill of articulating knowledge to audience.

The latter skills really pushes a lecturers own mindset on its perception on the audiences. It is always helpful (personally) to believe that the human brain is a powerful thing that can absorb and intepret many things, even though the owner may not necessary believe it to be so. To dumb down the audience in your sight is the first step of condemning them to a ‘useless, boring’ lecture. Three quarters of lecturers that I know fail to convey things across to the audience because of their own problems with the first requirement. They do not know enough of the subject matter. You will find that shouting or raising your voice may hide the ineptness of a lecturer for a time, but once the audience is used to the voice (noise), they can easily see through the issue at heart.

Which is why I always get complaints that certain lecturer (this and that lecturer) is a case-study lecturer (aka ABL advocate). Not because it is a better or it is the better way of teaching that subject, but as I suspect, it is because they do not even pass the first criteria of lecturing. That is why, we are focusing on ABL nowadays. A misapplied focus on the needs and requirements of lecturing. How sad!

This is meant to be a warning to all of us, but more importantly, I hope at least, it is a warning to institutions that good lecturers are not won by money, better salaries, better ‘certifications and titles’… good lecturers are built up carefully in the right ways (just as an athlete is good when he/she spends the right resources to develop them physically and mentally). The resources that make it possible for lecturers are time, research and practice. But in a day where the education industry is fast becoming a business industry, sadly, all these are fading away quickly. Time that used to be spent on knowledge building and articulation enhancement, is now spent in all other things (business ventures, marketing, sales, outdoor activities, etc.) which are not wrong of itself, but diminishes the time for what really counts.

Anyway, I have had the benefit of good lecturers during my time in Monash. If you ever thought lectures are boring, just go sit in on Professor Stephen Barkoczy’s class (Tax Law… you’ve been warned!). 1 hour lectures that are really mind stimulating, see his profile here. 😛 Hahaha. Another one that has made its round over the Net is the nutty professor Walter Lewin’s Physics class at MIT. Read more about him here and watch his lectures here. These are real lectures. Not your ABL sessions.

In the end, lectures should be the main domain of the ‘lecturer’ (hence the name title :P). It can really give much benefit to the students and provide them with real knowledge, if done correctly. But to do that, you have to see it in the proper light. Getting a bunch of untrained students to talk and discuss and finish some task, can stumble them to think that they are the experts. At the end, they are the losers.


Walter Lewin, of MIT-Physics Fame.

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