The classroom lecture is not dead

September 22, 2018

A few years ago, a high-ranking college administrator announced at our convocation: “The lecture is dead!” And then proceeded to give us a long-winded lecture on its demise.

For those unfamiliar with college environments, the lecture is an extended talk from a lectern that summarizes ideas, dispenses new knowledge or highlights key points about an assigned reading. Long considered dead, it is an effective tool. Contrary to those who think it’s a misguided form of one-way communication, there is question-and-answer session afterward.

With teaching software that uses hyperlinks and digital dictionaries, many would argue that the lecture is superfluous and unnecessary. All instructors must do now is simply load the software and students practically teach themselves. Of course, psychologists know that not all students learn the same. Lectures are still necessary in this age of digital technology. The neurotransmitters in our brains react differently to human contact than to the visual scan of a Google search or a YouTube video rendition of a lecture without immediate feedback.

Some lectures tend to exert a “narcotic effect on the attention and enthusiasm of the learners,” according to a professor writing in The Atlantic in 2013, while a steady diet of incessantly staring at computers can be deadening and detrimental to attention spans and contribute to information overload.

In the early ’70s, millions of Americans were riveted to the Emmy-winning television series “Paper Chase,” an adaptation of the film with the same name. The star was Professor Charles Kingsfield Jr., played by actor John Housman, who gave outstanding lectures at Harvard, using the Socratic method, to first-year law students. Starry-eyed students looked confident as they engaged Professor Kingsfield with logical responses to his probing and cajoling for answers. The browbeaten ones stayed buried in their books fearing eye contact lest they be called to answer a question.

On the first day, Professor Kingsfield gave them this introduction to Harvard Law School: “We use the Socratic method here. I call on you, ask you a question, and you answer it. Why don’t I just give you a lecture? Because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves. Through this method of questioning, answering, questioning, answering, we seek to develop in you the ability to analyze that vast complex of facts that constitute the relationships of members within a given society. Questioning and answering. At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer; I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part. You’ll never find the correct absolute and final answer. In my classroom there is always another question, another question to follow your answer.”

Of course, Professor Kingsfield’s Hollywood version of the Socratic method is not the one used in colleges and universities because the dialectic method is more collaborative and cooperative, and engages participants to question and examine the thesis with varying degrees of back-and-forth semantic banter sans the intimidation.

I often think about my English and humanities professors in college who gave stellar lectures and guided us with probing questions, helping us clarify our muddled thoughts through dialogue. Like everything under the sun, there are good lectures and bad lectures, just as there are good lecturers and bad lecturers. College administrators should think twice before dismissing the lecture as a vehicle for learning; they should better understand the distinguishing features of engaging lectures from those lectures that deaden the senses, leaving learners in foggy state of mind.

Giving good lectures is an art much the same way as painting, writing and playing the piano. It takes countless hours of dedication and practice to truly excel and become proficient. Some may have a natural gift at lecturing. To be sure, through study and practice, nearly anyone can improve to a certain degree.

And that, dear readers, concludes this month’s lecture.

Rafael Castillo, who teaches English and humanities at Palo Alto College, is director of publications and special projects for Catch the Next Inc.

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