Culture Magazine

Pedagogical Styles 2: Lectures, and Beyond…

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
It’s time to follow up my previous pedagogical post, on music and Socrates (that is, coaching and midwifery), with a one on lecturing, a rather different technique. Lecturing became associated with university study in the days before printing and so is, to some extent, a substitute for private ownership of cheap books. Instead of buying a good book on some subject, or at least borrowing one from the local library, the student would attend a course of lectures at a university.
The Lecture
Here’s what the Wikipedia article on lectures has to say:
The practice in the medieval university was for the instructor to read from an original source to a class of students who took notes on the lecture. The reading from original sources evolved into the reading of glosses on an original and then more generally to lecture notes. Throughout much of history, the diffusion of knowledge via handwritten lecture notes was an essential element of academic life.
Even in the twentieth century the lecture notes taken by students, or prepared by a scholar for a lecture, have sometimes achieved wide circulation (see, for example, the genesis of Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale).
That last example is worth a thought or two. I’m one of many who’ve read those Saussure notes; they’ve been standard in certain courses of study. These days, of course, the selling of lecture notes has become a business, as I’ve noted in an earlier post. We’ll get back to lecture notes shortly.
Before that, however, this passage from The Rise of Universities (by Charles Homer Haskins; Henry Holt and Company, New York; 1923; pp. 37-78) puts some flesh on the Wikipedia passage and is worth a quick skim:
The teachers of the thirteenth century who talk most about themselves are the professors of grammar and rhetoric like Buoncompagno at Bologna, John of Garlande at Paris, Ponce of Provence at Orleans, and Lorenzo of Aquileia at Naples and almost everywhere, but we shall make sufficient acquaintance with their inflated writings in other connections. More significant is the account which Odofredus gives of his lectures on the Old Digest at Bologna:
“Concerning the method of teaching the following order was kept by ancient and modern doctors and especially by my own master, which method I shall observe: First, I shall give you summaries of each title before I proceed to the text; second, I shall give you as clear and explicit a statement as I can of the purport of each law [included in the title]; third, I shall read the text with a view to correcting it; fourth, I shall briefly repeat the contents of the law; fifth, I shall solve apparent contradictions, adding any general principles of law [to be extracted from the passage], commonly called ‘Brocardica,’ and any distinctions or subtle and useful problems (quaestiones) arising out of the law with their solutions, as far as the Divine Providence shall enable me. And if any law shall seem deserving, by reason of its celebrity or difficulty, of a repetition, I shall reserve it for an evening repetition, for I shall dispute at least twice a year, once before Christmas and once before Easter, if you like.
“I shall always begin the Old Digest on or about the octave of Michaelmas [6 October] and finish it entirely, by God’s help, with everything ordinary and extraordinary, about the middle of August. The Code I shall always begin about a fortnight after Michaelmas and by God’s help complete it, with everything ordinary and extraordinary, about the first of August. Formerly the doctors did not lecture on the extraordinary portions; but with me all students can have profit, even the ignorant and new-comers, for they will hear the whole book, nor will anything be omitted as was once the common practice here. For the ignorant can profit by the statement of the case and the exposition of the text, the more advanced can become more adept in the subtleties of questions and opposing opinions. And I shall read all the glosses, which was not the practice before my time.” Then comes certain general advice as to the choice of teachers and the methods of study, followed by some general account of the Digest.
This course closed as follows: “Now gentlemen, we have begun and finished and gone through this book as you know who have been in the class, for which we thank God and His Virgin Mother and all His saints. It is an ancient custom in this city that when a book is finished mass should be sung to the Holy Ghost, and it is a good custom and hence should be observed. But since it is the practice that doctors, on finishing a book should say something of their plans, I will tell you something but not much. Next year I expect to give ordinary lectures well and lawfully as I always have, but no extraordinary lectures, for students are not good payers, wishing to learn but not to pay, as the saying is: All desire to know but none to pay the price. I have nothing more to say to you beyond dismissing you with God’s blessing and begging you to attend the mass.”
Important as was the formal lecture in those days of few books and no laboratories, it was by no means the sole vehicle of instruction. A comprehensive survey of university teaching would need also to take account of the less formal ‘cursory’ or ‘extraordinary’ lectures, many of them given by mere bachelors; the reviews and ‘repetitions,’ which were often given in hospices or colleges in the evenings; and the disputations which prepared for the final ordeal of maintaining publicly the graduation thesis.
Lecture Notes
The lecture affords the student with the opportunity to take notes, which is obviously very different from the direct interaction with the instructor that’s involved with coaching or Socratic dialog. Note-taking affords little or no interaction with the instructor. It’s just the student and the material; the instructor is merely the source of that material. The instructor is, in effect, a stand-in for the printed page, which didn’t exist at the time lecturing became a standard university practice.
Note taking itself is worth a thought or three. On the one hand we can think of it as kin to taking dictation. It neither requires nor particularly affords any understanding of the material. You just need to be able to spell the words and to write them down rapidly enough to keep up.
Without special training and practice, however, that’s impossible. So you have to pick and choose what you write. That’s when things get interesting. According to a New York Times article on lecture notes, research shows that
Memory is a weak tool, but thinking about the information — paraphrasing rather than writing everything verbatim — improves retention, according to a series of studies at Princeton, published last April in Psychological Science. Students who took notes by hand rather than laptop wrote less but performed better. Laptop users tended to merely transcribe a lecture “rather than processing and reframing it in their own words”; they scored strikingly lower on conceptual tests.
None of that is surprising. “Thinking about”, “paraphrasing”, “processing and reframing” – these actions get the note-taker involved in the ideas behind the lecturer’s words, and it’s the ideas that are important.
With Socratic teaching the student has no choice but to deal with the ideas, not their mere verbal expression. The goal of Socratic teaching is for the student, in effect, to internalize (cf. the Vygotsky tutorial) the teacher or, if you will, the teacher’s query function. In the case of the lecture, there isn’t much to internalize. Yes, the teacher is there, but the lecture format is not one where the teacher works out the ideas much less prompts the student to work out the ideas. Rather, it tends toward the presentation of finished ideas. Where those ideas came from, how the lecturer got from questions and gut feelings to a polished conclusion, that’s all a mystery.
And that, if I recall correctly (I’ve not actually checked), is more or less why Plato objected to writing. Writing separates the thinker from the word and leaves the student with the word alone, and the word alone is a dead husk. Plato, of course, was himself a writer. But he chose to write in a format in which one could see ideas being worked out. There was at least the semblance of a thought process on display, and a very clever semblance at that.
And that is why the lecture format has fallen under suspicion. It delivers the words without working with the student. The lecture format forces the burden of thought entirely on the student, and the student may not want that burden at all. That’s also why lecture courses generally have discussion sections as well. That’s when the students are forced to, have the opportunity to work with the ideas in an active way.
I’m ambivalent about lectures myself. I understand the arguments against them, but I also think they have a use. But I don’t want to think about that now. I want to present one more set of examples.
Lectures on the Web, and stuff
The web is awash in lectures on all kinds of things. Here’s one on The Physics of Fireworks (H/t 3 Quarks Daily):

Professor Chris Bishop, presenter of the 2008 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, gives a family lecture on the history of the modern firework.
Through demonstrations of pyrotechnic chemistry hear how Chinese incendiaries made from honey led to the development of gunpowder; discover how the loud bangs of fireworks are routed in the origins of photography; and find out how an accident in a nineteenth-century kitchen sparked a new chemistry for firework making.
Recorded at the University of Cambridge on the 4 November 2011.

That’s what I know about the lecture. I’ve watched much of it, enjoyed it, and remember a thing or two. Rather than being a lecture for a course, it appears to be one from a series of lectures presented to the public. If this were part of a course in physical chemistry, students would have lab sessions where there do some of these demonstrations for themselves.
Notice, however, that Prof. Bishop goes through the material in a graduated fashion so that we can see the various factors involved in making effective fireworks. He doesn’t go directly to the most effective recipe for gunpowder. He builds toward it step-by-step.
Here’s a somewhat different presentation, and much older. It’s from a television show that was current when I was a child, Mr. Wizard. This is particular show is about electricity.

The premise is that Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) is a friendly neighborhood guy who likes to teach science. So kids drop around and he teaches them through a series of demonstrations. The effect is the same as that in the fireworks lecture, a cumulative build-up of ideas on a common theme. I’m sure the whole program is scripted in advance, but the script takes the form of a dialog between teacher and student, as Plato packaged his philosophy in the same form.
What we have then is, on the one hand, a special lecture (a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture) on fireworks that is a standard science lecture that has been filmed for broadcast. On the other hand we have a staged dialog that is not at all a standard lecture that has simply been filmed. The fireworks lecture would have been filmed in real-time. The television show would have been filmed scene by scene and, of course, had a somewhat more elaborate back-end production process.
The lecture material for online courses is more like the fireworks lecture than it is like the Mr. Wizard program, or, for that matter, more elaborate presentations like the old Karl Sagan Cosmos series, it’s remake, or any number National Geographic programs, and so forth. As this material is online and much of it is free, it is available for use in online education. But no matter how elaborate and sophisticated the presentation, it’s not like interacting with a sophisticated teacher.
Of course there are computer systems that support interactive learning. I have no direct knowledge of them nor have I read about them. I have no trouble believing that they have their uses, nor do I have any trouble believing that they have been and can be abused.
The general issue is one of the online ecology. What is the best way to use what is, in the end, the scarcest recourse: teacher time?

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