29 March 2011

Defending Mr. Hand

Ok, most of us went to school in an era when most teachers taught like Mr. Hand. Who's Mr. Hand, you ask? He's Spicoli's nemesis of course. 

Mr. Hand was a bit of a hard ass, but at the end of the year he went to Spicoli's house to make sure he was ok, and that he had learned some U.S. History (good news; he was and he had). But for our purposes, we care about Mr. Hand and the way he taught. Mr. Hand was a lecturer. Now, I'm a big enough history nerd to be bothered by the order of what he talks about in the movie, but that's a far nerdier post for a far nerdier blog, if such a thing exists. Today, I want to talk about the lecture; and why it's fall from grace in educational circles is not fair, to students or to those loyal followers of Mr. Hand: the lecturers.

You see, starting in the 1980s, educational theorists began to recognize that the traditional model of school wasn't as effective as it had once been. There are any number of reasons for this, but that's (yet again) another topic for another day. These theorists began talking about students' multiple intelligences. They began to point out that not all students were gifted in learning in the traditional models. Many students were better when they were creating things, or moving, or working in groups.

These theorists wanted teachers to cater to these multiple intelligences. I could enter into a "I wish this wasn't true" rant, but that is reality teachers live in. That being said, as this new model of teaching came online, lecturers, such as Mr. Hand and myself, were villanized. We were the problem. Lecture was boring.

Students could never be expected to learn if the teacher was boring.

Bad lecture is bad. You've suffered through it, I've suffered through it. The lecturer is monotone, the material uninteresting, and the notes are hard to read. Perhaps the lecturer is reading his slides. Perhaps he's unprepared.

But bad lecture, despite what you've heard, isn't the only kind of bad teaching. In fact, all styles of teaching can be bad. But students don't complain about other types of bad teaching because in those situations students have the freedom to do things that are of interest to them. For an example we can look at group work. Many educational theorists love group work. They think that it's best if students pick their own projects, and then work in groups to complete them. I agree, these projects are great, but only when students are working hard on them. Too often groups dissolve into weekend recap groups. I think that's just as bad as a boring lecture, but students won't complain about it as often, because they weren't really forced to modify their behavior, unlike being in  a lecture situation.

On the other hand, good lecture is the way we as a society tend to deliver the most important information we have. Think about it. When you attend a religious service, it features a lecture. When the leader of the free world has something important to say to the nation, he doesn't divide us into groups to discuss why we are dropping bombs on Libya. He lectures. Lectures are the entire basis of the TED talks. Even smart people recognize the power of lecture.

So what makes a lecture good?

Well I think that there a five simple steps that teachers can take to make lecture good.

1. Be funny. You don't need to be a stand-up comedian, but you need to get at least some mercy laughs. People like to be funny, and so they pay attention to other people that are funny. Then, if you have a subject which is impossible to be funny about like the Holocaust, you have already built a rapport with your students so that they pay attention.

2. Be knowledgeable. No one wants to watch you stumble through a subject you're uncomfortable with. A good lecture actually ends up being a lot more like a discussion than a lecture, with a free exchange of questions and ideas, and that's not going to happen if you don't know what you're talking about.

3. Answer questions. Listen, people will need clarification, they will want to explore tangents. In most cases I find that you should let them. Learning should be a natural process, and by answering questions as they arise, you'll help to shape that learning.

4. If you have visuals, make them good. Don't read slides to your audience. Don't have images that are simply too small. Use the visuals to act as anchor points in your lecture.

5. Be willing to learn from your mistakes. Nobody is perfect, but ignorance is making a mistake and not learning from it.

I think these 5 steps are easy to take, and I think that most teachers could do them. I don't want lecture to dominate every class in every school, but personally, I'm tired of having lecture demonized, because I know just how good it can be.

That's all for now, so I'll sign off in the famous manner of Mr. Hand:


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