by Frank Furedi, The Guardian Higher Education Network: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/dec/10/in-praise-of-academic-lecture
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent – follow him on Twitter @Furedibyte
|A depiction of the world's oldest continually operating university, the University of Bologna, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The lecture is not just for students, says Frank Furedi – it helps academics see the strengths and weaknesses of their research.
Back in the 1970s, a small number of anti-authoritarian educators decided that the lecture was an archaic medieval relic that had no place in a modern enlightened university. It was denounced for stifling student creativity and active learning.
This cultural reaction against being 'lectured at' has, in succeeding decades, been supplemented by more utilitarian claims that this mode of teaching is an ineffective instrument for engaging and capturing the imagination of students.
Surely a practice invented in the pre-Gutenberg era has no place in a hi-tech digital world.
Today, when higher education has become addicted to finding technical solutions to educational problems it is inevitable that all the buzzwords - innovative teaching, active learning, student engagement - are hurled at the poor old lecture and it is found lacking.
In 2012, Harvard Magazine ran a story on the Twilight of the Lecture which predicted that the trend toward active learning may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 6oo years.
An article in Time, Why long lectures are ineffective, suggested students could only focus for 15-minute intervals and therefore could not be expected to stay awake and engaged during the standard 50-minute lecture.
This conviction that our current cohort of undergraduates suffer from a collective attention deficit syndrome has gained significant traction in the academic community.
Opponents of the lecture insist that it inspires less than most other methods of teaching and often switches students off from their studies.
At a recent conference on higher education, I frequently heard that lectures are no better than videos or audio tapes.
In the age of the MOOC, I was told, students have an opportunity to listen online to top elite professors and should not have to put up with the mumblings of an incoherent teacher standing in front of them in the offline lecture hall.
To its detractors, I say this: a lecture is a pedagogic technique. A lecture represents scholarship in action. A lecture given to an undergraduate audience provides a disciplinary context for the topic under discussion. And more than any other academic experience, the lecture provides students with meaning about the subject under discussion.
Ideally, this is accomplished through a combination of intellectual mastery and communicating with the passion the pursuit of scholarship demands.
What students gain from a lecture is much more than an introduction into new facts and ideas. At its best, it is a total experience. And years later what students recollect from that unforgettable lecture are not its details but a performance that validated their academic experience.
Of course, many lectures are far from memorable, and listening and taking notes requires commitment and effort.
But so long as the lecturer is well prepared, the format should provide students with the basic principles of their discipline. It also illustrates the fact that even knowledgeable academics struggle to communicate those ideas.
I have always regarded a lecture as the fundamental ritual of academic life. It is the one experience that has the most potential of forging a community of learners.
It creates a common intellectual experience for students and allows otherwise solitary undergraduates to become part of a continuous conversation. This is a conversation that is difficult to achieve through tutorials, seminar groups or chance encounters.
It is through lecturing that academics learn about the strengths and weaknesses of their argument.
Contrary to the views of its opponents, the lecture provides instant feedback. Through eye contact (or the lack of it) teachers can see when they have lost their audience. Student reactions shows which of our ideas confuse and which clarify.
Through responding to this experience, academics can discover new ways of thinking about and communicating a problem.
The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger had it right when stating that "by teaching we learn". Hopefully the creative pressure offered by lecturing allows us to become more effective, if not always inspiring, teachers.