Lectures Confine the Mind

Harvard Magazine has a lengthy piece about professor Eric Mazur’s mission to do away with the college lecture and introduce more interactive learning. It’s a mission that should have been launched ages ago. Whether the innovation is discovery learning, more group discussions, or a “flipped” classroom, almost any alternative is an improvement over a standard lecture.

Lectures have become so institutionalized that people often overlook the simplest reason they’re terrible. The mind is supposed to wander. People don’t naturally learn by listening to others, they learn by following their own thoughts and constructing their own knowledge. But during a live lecture a person has to dedicate so many cognitive resources to following the professor that thoughts are nipped in the bud.

Adding a “pause” button can make it possible to pursue any hint of inspiration. Just stop the lecture, Google what you’re thinking about until you either get bored or have a real insight, and then go back to the video. Any developing thought can be pursued to your satisfaction. Students working in groups may not be able to literally pause the conversation, but without an authority figure guiding their learning they have also have more freedom to pursue cognitive impulses. Obviously it will always be important to ensure that students learn certain concepts, but the more we can let minds weave their own path the better off students will be.

One Response to Lectures Confine the Mind

  1. Have you ever considered the concept of ‘balance’? There may well be a certain ‘balance’ among the learning activities that contribute to student learning. Maybe the ‘perfect mix’ does not exist, or cannot easily be determined, or is different for different individuals.

    But suppose for a minute that it exists. And that both ‘interactive learning’, ‘Google what you’re thinking’ and ‘group discussion’ make up the main part of that balance, while ‘listening to a teacher’ makes up for only 20% or less.

    Now this figure comes in handy. Because hardly any student has to listen for more than 8 hours in a 40-hour school week to a teacher. ‘Passively listening’ to true monologues is usually less than 8 hours, maybe only 4 – which is no more than 10% of learning time.

    This is because many teachers spent *at least* half of their lectures by interactively discussing with the audience. There you go.

    A *great part* of the lessons in high school is *not* spent on listening to lectures. There you go.

    And a *lot* of time that is not spent in classrooms or college halls, but at home or in the library – and that is definitely part of ‘learning time’ – is *not* spent on listening to lectures.

    In short: what you propose is already there. The time students have to spend on listening to monologues is already very limited. It is part of a certain balance. And if you leave it out of that balance, there’s no way of knowing how the balance will shift for each and every student.

    Some of them would not want to miss those lectures for the world – such as the students blessed with gifted teachers, who inspire and motivate them, and helps them to see perspective that they would not have discovered themselves by Googling around.

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