Teaching IR #3: Should the lecture stay?

Some thoughts about whether the oldest pedagogical trick ought to stay or be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Today, the lecture faces a lot of criticism, especially from education reformists. In this post, I do not aim to address all criticism exhaustively. Instead, I focus on one piece of representative criticism, namely the argument that the lecture is “passive” and thus, should be replaced with more “active” pedagogy.

One common theme of critique against the lecture is its “passive nature”. The lecture here is argued to be a passive activity, one where students sit still and receive knowledge delivered by instructors by way of speech or presentation. The lecture is viewed as a “one-way street”, much like how a pastor delivers a Sunday sermon in church.

The “one-way street” analogy is quite false. A lecture is not simply the regurgitation of facts and tidbits of knowledge of which the student is expected to jot down verbatim and commit to memory. Conducted properly, a lecture is more of a two-way street, where the lecturer and students engage in the classical Socratic dialogue. The lecturer, coming from a place of knowledge, delivers their expert take on the course material. The student, having read the night before (presumably), may gain a new understanding on what they have read. Simultaneously, they may also challenge what the lecturer is saying. This dialogue may then generate new insights on the material being discussed. To illustrate this, I quote Alex Small:

What I remember most from my college courses is not any particular fact delivered by a professor, but the processes by which they reasoned through complex issues, and the methods of problem-solving that they demonstrated.

The argument that the lecture is entirely passive, therefore, is a straw-man argument. In a lecture, the student is not as idle as one may perceive. They take notes, either by hand or by typing. They listen. They endeavor to absorb and rearrange knowledge inside their brains. They learn to know the limits of their knowledge and may engage in dialogue to broaden these boundaries. These are all “active” skills that the student may transfer into the workplace. The lecture, therefore, is training for nurturing active listening skills. Of course, this is a rose-tinted view of the student whose attention span has not been cut short by continuous exposure to screens or those who have their necks bent downwards to catch sneak peeks of their Instagram feed. However, these counter-arguments serve to show that the “passive” critique does not have a strong basis in reality. If lectures are to be dismissed because they are passive, then think of the fate of TED Talks, which are widely acclaimed yet in essence, are short versions of campus lectures. Ken Robinson’s most-watched TED Talk is a 20-minute lecture on how the modern education system kills creativity! Or what of podcasts, which could be considered as a more modernized version of the lecture and form the foundation of many online-based courses, and hailed by many as a welcome alternative to sitting in class or paying for a seminar? The only downside of these media is that it is much more difficult to get a dialogue going on between the speaker and audience.

Lectures also serve an important social purpose which enhances their utility as a pedagogical tool. I draw largely from a Western university experience (where students have large liberty to choose courses) and I concede that many cultural influences may not be transferable to an Indonesian university experience. Differences aside, the lecture (usually delivered on a weekly basis) provides an opportunity for students to meet face-to-face with their lecturers and peers. They are forced to come together, at least once a week, and share in the collective experience of listening to new ideas from both sides. The lecturer is forced out of their office and stacks of research papers to convey what they know to students; students are forced to dress up and venture out of their dorm rooms to actively socialize with their peers. This imposes a sort of structure upon students, which serves to remind them that something is being demanded of them by other human beings. Without this sense of structure, they would be more prone to goofing off. The effect is less pronounced in instances where students only access recorded lectures via the e-university system (see, among others, Edwards & Clinton, 2019 [open access]; note that this refers to instances where students would watch video lectures in lieu of actually attending and then recording them).

On a side note, I would surely be pissed off if I were paying tuition and not having a real human being speak to me.

Universities have been, in one way or another, pressured to move towards what we know as “active learning”, which I argue is among many of the fancy neoliberal lingo designed to undermine the concept of the university and a coping mechanism for dwindling financial support. This often involves splitting up students into small teams (the beloved method of consulting firms) or groups and have them do a bunch of activities, while instructors sit back and intervene when necessary. Or “flipping classrooms”, where students watch recorded lectures at home and conduct learning activities in class. I am not anti-active learning; if anything, I’ve sought to add more game-like elements to it. However, I do not believe in the idea that lectures ought to be discarded in favor of student-centered, active learning. Instead, the lecture should be integrated alongside these activities.

As a pedagogical tool, the lecture is indeed a powerful method of delivery. At the same time, it is also fundamentally humanistic. Those who advocate scrapping it altogether miss these concepts. They do not understand that education is not simply content delivery, that students are empty baskets that can be filled with knowledge. And because of that, it should stay.

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