Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Our Love Affair With Lectures

Why is the lecture so cool again?

I mean, I thought we were working towards banishment of this age-old crotchety form of education. The era of the one-way teacher-centered face-forward podium-and-powerpoint education was to be replaced by a new era of two-way, student-centered, sit-in-a-circle, flip charts-and-facilitation education. Yet, the lecture seems to be growing in strength.

This essay isn’t about classrooms, where the lecture is still the preferred method (unfortunately). Not much we can do with that. It’s about our choices in student affairs.

Higher education is following a societal trend back towards lecture-based learning. Every other minute of every single day I’m receiving an e-mail or a Facebook message directing me to the latest TED talk. TED is a group of conferences that feature 18-minute lectures by renowned experts. The talks are often shared online, and they can definitely be engaging. However, they are still a classic lecture: a sage-on-a-stage imparting their ideas and knowledge on a passive audience.

Quick tangent: what’s with our country’s fascination with the British accent? It’s a cool accent for sure, but it seems like every expert on TV, radio, or TED has a British accent. I bet 30% of them are faking it.

Maybe I should start writing these posts in a British accent.

As opposed to academia, student affairs has often been the locus for different methods of education, including experiential learning and institute-style programs. Student affairs was the place where real-life learning took place. We rescued students from the suffocating confines of the classroom and gave them a way to actually get involved in the learning.

Experiential learning is essentially making meaning from a direct experience. It involves a real or simulated experience along with analysis, reflection, and applied learning.

An institute-style experience is one that involves a progessively challenging curriculum that all learners experience. It typically involves facilitated discussions on core concepts followed by processing in smaller groups. It can also usually be marked by a longer duration - such as five or six days. LeaderShape and UIFI are great examples. So is Key Leader - a Kiwanis program for high school students.

Obviously the lecture is different from these in that it typically features a single expert transferring knowledge in a one-way fashion to an audience of learners. The problem with this approach is that without the chance to do something, learn from it, and apply it, we have a tendency to struggle with using the information. In a lecture, we may remember the core lesson, but not know how to apply it.

If I asked you to recall the last TED talk you watched online, you could probably recite the primary points. If I asked you how you’ve used the core points in your leadership, I’m guessing most of you would not have much of an answer. Without active practice, not much can be expected. It’s like watching a instructional video on baseball without swinging a bat.

One of my favorite speakers/lecturers, Jeff Cufaude once described the typical keynote speech as one that starts with a humorous story, contains 3 main points that are easily comprehended, extremely benign, and quickly forgotten, and closes with an inspirational story or poem. It’s the truth.

And I fear we are relying to much on those. We’re even getting so excited about lectures again that some national conferences for college students are including TED-like mini lectures as a prominent feature. Also, the professional speaking circuit is as big an influential as ever before.

Professional speakers can fall into the “lecture” category simply because their format doesn’t allow for much meaningful interaction. The audiences are usually large, with rows of chairs facing straight ahead towards the expert speaker. They really can’t be deeply interactive (and asking the audience to stand and do a cheer does not make the program interactive).

But do they need to be interactive? That’s not the purpose of a lecture. The purpose again is to transfer knowledge from an expert to the audience. And that's okay if that's the purpose. Most good speakers (hello T.J., Rick, Ox, Stollman, Phired Up, and others) use techniques to transfer that knowledge in a more interesting way - mostly through humor and stories.

So why use a lecture-based program at all? A few reasons:
  • It may be most important for you to get a single idea across to a large group of people (such as risk management).
  • You need “edu-tainment” to kick off a big event such as orientation, an awards night, or Greek Week.
  • You don’t have time to plan something more involved.
These programs can be compelling, buzzworthy, and cause individuals to gain a new perspective. However, if you really want to create change, I encourage you to go experiential or institute-style. What does that mean? It means full-weekend retreats instead of 60-minute keynotes. It means facilitated small group conversations instead of big auditorium events. It means role plays instead of movies. Scenarios instead of articles. Full semester leadership classes instead of workshops.

There are times and places for lectures. I love hearing good professional speakers. And you can occasionally grab a lesson from them that sticks with you. For example, Ed King flipped my perspective upside-down (in a positive way) on the role of Ritual in fraternity. Dave Westol forever shaped my thoughts on hazing. T.J. and Joel caused me to care more about H.I.V. and AIDS.

However, don’t rely on these speeches too much. While they can be a spark, expecting them to change your Greek community is like expecting a diet pill to take the weight off for you. The same could be said for blogs by the way!

Also, look at your budget. What’s the best return on investment? How can that $3000 go the furthest?

The problem is that experiential learning or institute-style programs take more effort to coordinate. Those that are planned poorly can be a waste of valuable time for students. But, if the objective of education is to provide information that leads to new behaviors or actions, these methods are the best way to go. They provide the learner a chance to actually practice leadership. They hold up a mirror to each participant and ask him/her to question their own assumptions. They push students hard on questions of ethics and integrity. They demand more from the students than sitting in an auditorium chair.

So, I encourage you to look at your campus’s educational offerings in a holistic way and to find a place for more institutes and experiential programs.

And to help, next week I’ll share some thoughts on how to make the classic retreat a really effective experience.

Until then, I’m going to work on my British accent. Cheerio!

1 comment:

  1. I would question your assertion that experiential programs are superior. I guess it all depends on a person's learning style. I find spending three to four days engaged in exercises to be the 4th ring of hell. Having done UIFI several times and having done a 4-day Outward Bound event, I will tell you that I don't remember any content. A good feeling, yes. Relationships, yes. Content, no. I'd much rather invest an hour (or less) in a speaker who is good, challenging, and gets my mind racing. But, of course, I'm biased. I think it has a lot to do with whether you're a process oriented person or a results oriented person, frankly. BTW, thanks for the positive shout outs.