…Or perhaps that should be: “I’m not here to entertain you!”
To be honest, every time someone tries to talk to me about being ‘creative’ in the classroom I balk. Come on, I’m neither an actor nor a party clown! A couple of the courses I teach are human anatomy & physiology courses, and really I should be able to be the most boring lecturer in the world and students should still be interested, right? I mean, it’s how your own body works for crying out loud! Not to mention that nearly all students in those courses are there because it’s a required course for a program that they’re trying to get into, for a career they want to do, so they should be highly self-motivated to work hard, right?
Well, not really. Even I’m not quite that naive. Granted, some of my students would probably do well with a cardboard cutout standing at the front the class and a computerized voice reading passages from their textbook. And yet… students do enroll in in-person classes, and most do attend class regularly, so there must be some value in live interactions with an in-person instructor. It’s not as though I’m ever going to be quite as entertaining as Crash Course videos, or quite as detailed and well-rehearsed as videos from Khan Academy. I nevertheless continue to sprinkle my lectures with comics and cartoons, bad jokes and puns, and plenty of enthusiasm, and students nevertheless continue to enroll in and attend class. Despite dire warnings to the contrary, “the corpse of lecture-based teaching shows remarkable signs of life” (Brookfield, 2006, p. 97). So what’s going on? Is there some value in lecture-based teaching, that it persists?
When I think of ‘lecturing’ I think of one person talking at a group. But as Brookfield (2006) points out, lecture-based teaching doesn’t mean the absence of discussion. In my classes for example I do still rely on lectures to explain concepts that are generally difficult for learners to understand, and was pleased to see the Brookfield (2006, pp. 100-101) lists this among “proposed reasons” to lecture! The others he lists include some that looked familiar as well: To establish a broad outline, to model intellectual attitudes and behaviours, and to encourage learners’ interest. He also includes introducing alternative perspectives and interpretations, which I have yet to incorporate successfully in my own classes (although I’m working on it by trying the instructional activity “Think again!” outlined in Barkley, 2010, pp. 256-258). What I appreciate most about Brookfield’s approach is that he doesn’t consider lecturing in isolation, but as part of a toolkit that instructors can make good use of. This approach does make me feel considerably less guilty about what I had seen as relying on an old familiar approach that I’m familiar with. In effect I feel as though I can give myself permission to sometimes stick with the classics if they work the way I want them to, even as I continue to look for different approaches to improve my own effectiveness as an instructor. But improving my own effectiveness means also improving my skills in every activity or approach I choose to use in the classroom, so maybe trying to be at least a little engaging when talking “at” students isn’t so bad after all.
Barkley, E. F. (2010) Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S.D. (2006) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.