How Choice Makes Lectures Work

lectures with choice

Here in Philadelphia we spent the weekend watching and listening to the Pope during his visit. People were glued to their televisions and devices when the Pope gave a talk on the Ben Franklin Parkway, or lectured to seminary students, or spoke at Independence Hall where our nation’s founding fathers first declared that all men are created equal.

Pope Francis’ message was clear. And yet, the only way to receive this message was to sit quietly and listen through a translator.

It got me thinking about how we learn. Pope Francis didn’t have the seminary students in groups, working collaboratively on a project, where they problem-solved together to come to a conclusion. He didn’t have the thousands in the crowd do a quick “turn-pair-share” activity so the message stuck with them and they had a chance to talk during his lesson. He didn’t bring technology into his message (although the millions sharing, tweeting, and discussing online sure did).

Pope Francis calmly delivered lecture after lecture to crowds of people (and millions watching at home) and kept everyone’s attention.

How did he do it, when all he did was lecture?

The answer hit me square in the face as I was talking to a friend on Sunday. It was about choice.

I asked my friend, “Hey, did you catch the Pope’s message to the seminary students? I thought it was powerful?”

“Nope”, he said.

“Well”, I continued, “what about the talk he gave at the prison, or at Independence Hall when he used the same podium Abraham Lincoln used for the Gettysburg Address?”

“I missed most of it. Caught some of the stuff on the news, sounds like people are really impressed”, he said.

Almost everyone I had spoken to in the Philadelphia region had heard one of these talks the Pope had given. I was a bit taken aback by my friend. Did he really not care?

“So, did you not watch at all this weekend?”

“Not really. I was working and had a lot of things to do. And there were some great football games on!”

Finally, my mind clicked. The only people who were watching these lectures and talks were doing so because they cared. I could watch a hundred other things on TV, could be outside (it was a beautiful weekend), could be finishing painting the nursery in my house, or a thousand other things…and yet, I choose to watch a few of these talks because I wanted to hear what the Pope had to say.

My friend on the other hand. He could care less. He was not forced to watch the Pope and therefore had no ill will or bad feelings around the talk, instead he was a bit indifferent and focused on what he had to do this past weekend.

The sad part of all of this is when I realized why students hate lectures so much: They don’t get a choice.

The Best and Worst of Lectures

As a student, I remember sitting through an entire day of lectures many times in school. It was awful. Most of the time I did not care about the content. Other times I did care about the subject, but the presentation was slow and did not have any compelling stories to support the content.

Now as a teacher and administrator, I tend to vilify the lecture. I do not want to see students sitting quietly in their rows of desks (the cemetery effect) while a teacher pontificates at the front of the classroom for much too long. This is not best practice. It, in my mind, is one of the worst practices we still have in our K-12 schooling system (well, that and popcorn reading).

And yet…

When we hosted TEDxPennsburgED at our school, the audience sat and listened to lectures with rapt attention. I’ve watched and given Keynote speeches that were mostly lectures to large groups of people. I listen to long podcasts on my car ride to and from work that are often a story or lecture. And, this past weekend I made time to sit and watch the Pope speak in lecture form.

How can we love lectures at some points in our learning, and denounce them in other forms of learning?

To answer that question, we have to look past the actual presentation of the lecture, and instead focus on why, as a learner, we are listening/watching the lecture in the first place.

If we choose, of our own volition to go and listen to a lecture — or take a class that is mostly lectures, or watch a talk online, or turn on the television to listen to a message — then we are actively engaged in the subject and learning material based on our ownership of that decision.

If instead, we are forced to take a European History class (sorry, SS teachers) or Global Literature class (hey, I was an English teacher) that is filled with hours of lectures, then we will have no ownership or choice in what we are choosing to learn, and how we are forced to learn about it.

Choice, as Alfie Kohn says in his article, Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide:

The evidence to support choice is so compelling that it is frankly difficult to understand how anyone can talk about school reform without immediately addressing the question of how students can be given more say about what goes on in their classes.

The evidence goes on and on. At least one recent study has found that children given more “opportunity to participate in decisions about schoolwork” score higher on standardized tests;(25) other research shows that they are more likely than those deprived of autonomy to continue working even on relatively uninteresting tasks.(26) There is no question about it: even if our only criterion is academic performance, choice works.

In a way, this conclusion shouldn’t be surprising. Putting aside the value of particular programs that give students more discretion about what they are doing, the irrefutable fact is that students always have a choice about whether they will learn. We may be able to force them to complete an assignment, but we can’t compel them to learn effectively or to care about what they are doing. The bottom line is that “teaching requires the consent of students, and discontent will not be chased away by the exercise of power.”(27) No wonder that expanding the realm in which the learner’s consent is sought tends to enhance learning.

When we choose to lecture in our classrooms, we are doing so under the guise that students are eager to hear the message we are going to deliver.

Most often this is not the case.

If (and only if) the learner has chosen that subject and specific lesson out of true interest, would a lecture make sense as a teaching strategy.

But, in classrooms around the world, students don’t have that choice. They are forced to go through a series of classes, subjects, and lessons to which they have no say, or choice in what they are learning.

It is in these situations, where we must give students choice in how they learn and what they learn. If we don’t give that choice, then we are being selfish. We are focused on what works best for us as a teacher, then what is best for the learner. The research speaks loudly on this matter of choice, but so does our own experiences.

Think about the last time you were engaged in a lecture that you didn’t want to listen to…I can’t think of one time in my life where that has been true. Can you?

Photo Credit: Jirka Matousek via Compfight cc

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  • Rick Gavin says:

    It’s so true what you say about lectures. Even as an administrator, I often find PD sessions that are lecture format terribly difficult to sit through especially if I am not engaged in the topic. Yet so many of our students have to experience this every day. It’s something educators need to keep in mind when planning. Quiet doesn’t mean engagement or that learning is taking place. Often it means the opposite.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      I love that line Rick, “Quite doesn’t mean engagement of that learning is taking place. Often it means the opposite.” Thanks for sharing!

  • Dana Murphy says:

    Very interesting perspective. I did not watch the Pope’s speeches, either, but I imagine I would not have watched at length. It’s all a matter of choice.

    The research around adult learners also says choice is a powerful factor in their learning. Adults need choice; otherwise, they don’t learn. Just like kids. 🙂

  • So the thought that leaps first into my head is.. Is there a way to spin no choice so it comes up choice for learners?

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