Friday, January 22, 2010

“You Can Get It in the Book”

Many years ago, while being interviewed by a dean for an academic position, I became engaged in a discussion of the philosophy of education. The dean tossed out as if it were self-evident: “The lecture has been obsolete for 500 years, since the invention of the printing press. Students can read the book.” His assumption was that lectures were needed in the pre-printing press era when books were rare and expensive, but not today when they are plentiful.

While it is true that with careful reading and study one can “get it in the book,” this neglects differences between written and oral presentations, between reading and speaking. These differences give rise to the true benefit of the lecture and explain why it has not died out in 500 years.

The average rate of reading with comprehension by an adult is about 250-300 words per minute. The average speaking speed of politicians is 120-25 words per minute, and CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite spoke at the exact rate per minute of 124 words. Casual conversation is often faster, but the point about the lecture is that formal oral presentations are delivered at half the rate, or less, of the average reading speed.

This means that less information can be presented orally in one minute than what can be read in the same amount of time. Less information in an oral presentation means essentialization. A lecture that essentializes a text makes it easier for the listener to grasp the main points of the written content. With the main points in hand, the listener can then pursue a more detailed study of the written material without first having to read at length to separate the essential from the nonessential. The advantage of the lecture is its efficiency; it saves time.

Whether the speaker deliberately essentializes the presentation or not, the listener hears it as essentialized, as important. The detail in the text is understood as detail. This means that it matters what gets selected as essential in the oral presentation. It makes the difference between good, bad, and indifferent lectures.

The efficiency of the lecture, of course, can also be achieved in conversation with an expert or mentor. The real advantage of the lecture is its ability to broadcast large amounts of essentialized material to many listeners at one time. Does this mean that everyone in the audience learns and digests the material in exactly the same way, one hundred percent? Hardly.

The comprehension and learning of listeners to a lecturer is exactly analogous to the comprehension and appreciation of listeners to a string quartet concert. One member of the quartet’s audience might be tone deaf. The next might be a professional violinist from another group who frequently plays the same pieces as those being performed on stage. Similarly, some students in my classes come in with D-’s in their prerequisite courses. Others come in with A’s. Most are somewhere in between. Audience members—of lectures and string quartet concerts—take away from the experience what they want, and are able, to take away.

Fine tuning may or may not be desired. In education, it usually is, which is why Jacques Barzun declared, “A lecture is a sizing of the canvas in broad strokes. The fine brush
and palette knife must be used close up to finish the work of art” [1] and why Gilbert Highet argued that the only two methods of teaching are the lecture and tutorial [2].

The purpose and value of the lecture is mass communication. The purpose and value of the tutorial is personal communication and individual attention. Though some, perhaps many, of a lecturer’s audience may not absorb everything the lecturer intended, a few listeners may be motivated to study the subject in more detail, just as concertgoers may be stimulated to buy CD’s of the works performed and listen to them many times over in order to learn them thoroughly.

The lecture is part of the division of labor in education. The tutorial is the other part.

1. Teacher in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1954), 39.
2. The Art of Teaching (New York: Vintage Books, 1950), chapter 3.


K. Tierney, M.D. said...

Excellent, Jerry - Explains what I have always 'felt' to be true...Bravo! K Tierney, M.D.

David said...

"The lecture is part of the division of labor in education. The tutorial is the other part."....and the autodidactic learning is the best part. ;)

"We have to be careful with words. It's a miracle they ever mean the same thing to any two people. Often, they don't. Words like 'love,' 'peace,' 'trust,' 'democracy' -- everyone brings to these words a lifetime of experiences, a world view, and we know how rarely we have these in common with anyone else.

Take the word 'class.' I don't know what it means in cultures that don't have schools. Maybe they don't even have the word. To most people reading this, the word conveys a wealth of images:......"

"....There is another kind of class at school, from time to time. It happens when people feel they have something new and unique to say that can't be found in books, and they think others may be interested. They post a notice: 'Anyone interested in X can meet me in the Seminar Room at 10:30AM on Thursdays.' Then they wait. If people show up, they go on. If not, that's life. People can show up the first time and, if there is a second time, decide not to come back.

I've done this kind of thing several times. The first session, I usually get a crowd: 'Let's see what he's up to.' The second session, fewer come. By the end, I have a small band who are truly curious about what I have to say on the subject at hand. It's a form of entertainment for them, and a way for me (and others) to let people know how we think."

[Excerpts, "Classes," Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg]

See also: "And 'Rithmetic," and "Persistence," Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg.

David said...

Sudbury Valley School is exciting. Don't you think so?

David said...

Learning by free social interaction, playing and talking (conversation):

Educating yourself

A Graduate Says:

I didn't really think about getting an education. I didn't understand the idea of having to artificially "get" an education. I thought that you lived in the world and you got smarter because every day you were learning. I thought that there was no way you could get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain. It seemed to me that one day you were talking to someone about one subject and another day you were talking to someone about another, and eventually you'd get around to all of them.

Outsiders would ask, "What classes do you do?" And you'd think, "Classes? We don't do classes, you know. Look around. There are no classrooms here." They'd say, "What did you learn today?" and we'd think, "What did we learn today? What are you talking about?" Because it wasn't as if you went into the library and learned your facts for the day. You had a dozen conversations with people. We weren't learning subject by subject. We were learning in a much more organic manner. You would be doing a lot of different things and you would learn them in little bits and pieces that would start adding up to much bigger pictures. You wouldn't really know where it came from a lot of the time. By the time you were done learning about something, information was coming from so many different sources, from books and from people you were talking to, and from a long drawn out experience, that you had no idea how you learned it.

see also:
The Preeminent Intelligence - Social IQ
, by Raymond H. Hartjen

Interview with Daniel Greenberg.

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

Yes, David, I certainly agree that Sudbury Valley School is exciting. My wife and I lived in nearby Natick and Marlborough in the 1980s but had not heard of SVS at that time. I've since read several of Daniel Greenberg's books and if I were younger, I might try to open an SVS-type school. Your last name, by any chance, isn't Greenberg, is it?? I assume you were an SVS student, perhaps staff member?


David said...

You are lucky, Jerry, having lived in the nice country of Massachusetts. Regrettably, I haven't been to SVS.