Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An alternative to the content exposition mode of lecturing


- Gautham

At lunch we were having a discussion about the role of lectures in education. There is a lot of talk now about "reversing" (or is it "inverting"?) the classroom and about how lectures are not very valuable in their current form.

I think in some ways that is because we are doing the lectures incorrectly. Most lectures feel like an exposition of content. The "course content" in fact. We talk of the lecture "covering" some part of the course's content. These bits of content are the facts that a student is expected to know by the end of it. It also includes the skill to complete certain tasks.

The idea these days seems to be that a lecture is a poor way to communicate knowledge, and that the skill to complete certain tasks is best obtained by the student "doing."

I get fairly heated up when I perceive that "learning by doing" is being put on a higher pedestal than the alternative. Part of my angst is because I am exposed often to situations where a person, sometimes my past self, knows how to "do" something and has been doing it for years, but does it all wrong: Science that is gravely flawed because folks valued doing way over anything else, ugly computer programs, poor lindy hop/balboa on the dance floor, and dangerous and inefficient weightlifting technique in the gym. Everyone is nominally "completing task" but many do it very poorly. I also perceive very clearly how my skill in those four things have been dramatically improved by instruction of various forms.

The issue is that the counterpart to "learning by doing" is usually "learning by listening to content exposition," and that alone has not helped me all that much since I am good at absorbing content alone at a much faster rate from books.  Instead, I have gained tremendously from "observing a master at work and listening to their advice."

So if you are a lecturer, rather than teaching content, you can teach how to do your craft excellently. You can show how you work through a problem as a master of your craft. You can give advice on the wrong roads to take, as those options arise, which you know from your years of experience and constant self-improvement don't take you to a good place. You can show exactly how to hold the hammer so that the nail goes in straight.

If your craft is the development of ideas, you will devote your lecture to that, and there you have reason to go through lengthy derivations, but you will do so to teach your students how to derive new certainties efficiently and how to play with concepts.  I will gain from seeing your approach, and without thinking I will emulate the parts that speak to me, like I subconsciously try to emulate the posture of my dance floor and lifting platform heroes.

  In some ways this makes lecturing easier and in other ways harder. Teaching content is often somewhat boring for the lecturer too, but teaching the lessons one has learned while on the road to mastery comes naturally and with pride. On the other hand one has to be a master to teach like this.

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