— Zac Chase (@MrChase) February 25, 2016
Lectures are about control:
- Control of the narrative.
- Control of the cannon.
- Control of the information to be disseminated.
- Control of the time it takes to listen and (maybe) understand.
- Control of the pace and format for learning.
But, sometimes those controls can lead to really great learning. Sometimes a lecture is exactly what is needed to better understand a topic or to learn from someone with a specific expertise that is difficult to share in other ways. I would like to enumerate all of the times that lectures are good, but before I do so, I must lay out a few caveats.
The true benefits of lecture can only be felt if the following are in place:
- An authentic choice has been made by the participant to listen to and learn from the lecture. This means that there was a conscious decision to NOT do some other type of learning. It cannot be a passive decision or a “path of least resistance” decision. Rather, it should be an enthusiastic decision to learn by letting someone else share their experience.
- A backchannel is available. If the participants are not able to discuss their learning with one another as a part of the session (turn-and-talk, etc.), they must at least be able to process with one another through a Twitter (or some other technology) backchannel.
- The lecturer knows the audience. The person at the front of the room should know their audience and be responsive to them. She should be able to take cues and receive feedback from the audience in the form of laughter or energy in the room, incorporating it into the scope of the lecture itself.
- The lecture must tell a story. While I do not believe all lectures have to be riveting, I do believe that all effective lectures have a core conflict. There is some broader purpose for the relay of this information, and there is some deeper truth that is trying to be uncovered.
With all of those deep caveats in mind, the benefits of lecture are:
- Participants get to react and think through to a single argument. Most other learning formats do not allow for participants to dig into a single argument because each participant is hearing and working on something slightly different. When you have more voices in the room speaking, there is no single compelling idea for which to react to and build upon.
- Important ideas can be easily transferred. If TED talks or An Inconvenient Truth are any indication, videos of lectures are one of the easiest ways to transfer important ideas from a small group of people to millions. This is why speeches still dominate political discourse. It is why we remember key metaphors and talking points and don’t need to constantly re-watch the same ideas over and over again. Lectures create a shorthand for ideas, and it can hugely benefit the transfer of those ideas.
- The barrier to entry is really low. For many types of learning, especially more active formats, there is a specific set of prerequisites for taking part. This includes technical understanding or even the ability to actively work together as a group. The lecture does not require anything other than your ability to listen. This simplicity is powerful. Although it can be abused by lecturers who try and obfuscate meaning, when done well, it allows everyone to learn.
- It gives a voice to anyone who is willing to speak. While it doesn’t happen as much as it should, when underrepresented opinions are given a platform from which to share, it lends an authority that wouldn’t otherwise be present. This is particularly acute in “keynote lectures”. When women, people of color, LGBT, or other people with substantially less privilege can stand up and speak their minds, it can be a powerful way to push back against injustice.
Clearly, lecture has its place. While I do think that for most learning lecture gets in the way of creation or collaboration, it can be done well and used strategically by an individual or an institution. In many ways, I hope that lecture doesn’t go away, but rather is used for what it is best suited: when the right voice is the one voice that should be heard.