Rethinking Lectures, Learning, and Engagement

June 23, 2021

­­­I have, for quite a long time, not been a big fan of lectures as a primary way of fostering learning and the positive transformations that accompany learning at its best—particularly when the learning is centered around training sessions for adults in workplace settings. Within the learning environments onsite and online in which I most frequently work, learning is doing and doing is learning—which leaves lengthy formal lectures near the bottom of my learning toolkit in most situations. And I can’t say that I have changed my mind substantially. But reading an article—“Good Riddance to Boring Lectures? Technology Isn’t the Answer—Understanding Good Teaching Is,” by Christopher Charles Deneen and Michael Cowling for TheConversation.com—brought to my attention by ShapingEDU colleague Kim Flintoff, has inspired some rethinking on the subject—particularly after engaging in an unexpected set of asynchronous exchanges with colleagues via Facebook.

The article by Deneen and Cowling is thoughtful, balanced, and inspiring. The writers begin by describing how a vice chancellor at an Australian university is suggesting that as students return to onsite learning this year, lectures “would be much less common and not a ‘crutch for poor pedagogy.’” They deftly dive into an exploration of the idea that lectures will “be replaced by superior, technology-enhanced substitutes.” And after exploring our long-standing love-hate relationship with lectures in learning, they circle back to what is, for me, a perfect, well-reasoned conclusion: “We need to reject the notion that lectures will sink our students and technology will save them. Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.”

Kim Flintoff

Kim, in posting (on Facebook) a link to the article, offered the briefest of comments: “I think the issue is engagement. Some lecturers can be very engaging. Many are not. Creating space for the learner is one of the criteria for engagement.” And that’s where the fun starts, for Barry Altland, a cherished ATD (Association for Talent Development) colleague here in the United States, responded to Kim’s comment with this opening salvo: “This [comment] states the ‘lecturers can be engaging.’ By their very definition, they are not. Facilitators are. But lecturers, presenters, speakers and instructors are not. Nor are teachers. For those are all movements that one does ‘at’ another, not ‘with’ another. Only a Facilitator invites the voices of many others into the learning conversation.”

My response did little to hide my surprise:I’m seeing the ‘lecture’ format evolve in engaging ways, and don’t sense that an appreciation for what first-rate facilitators inspire and accomplish precludes an appreciation for what a first-rate lecturer inspires and accomplishes. 2) I wouldn’t trade memories of lectures I have attended by Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Ann Patchett, Eric Whitacre, Jeremy GutscheR. David Lankes, and numerous others for anything. Furthermore, TED talks I’ve seen or attended suggest how vibrant, engaging, and transformative a lecture can be when the lecturer uses the power of storytelling to draw us into powerful communal experiences. And the best of the teacher-lecturers I’ve found in formal academic settings have had a lifelong impact on my approach to work, learning, and play. Really sorry if you haven’t had experiences along those lines. As Lankes would say: Expect More!”

Barry Altland

Dave himself, tagged in my response on Facebook, almost immediately joined the conversation: “The best lectures stimulate a dialog within the individual. A good book can be engaging, a song can change a life.” Which drew a response from Barry: “Books and songs are inanimate. When human beings come together, they both have something to offer the learning moment.”

R. David Lankes

With the ball back in Dave’s court, the exchange continued: “You used the word ‘engagement.’ A good lecture spawns conversations, internal and between people. Also, a lecture can absolutely be interactive one to many and many to one. I absolutely know the power of facilitated learning and workshops. Mastery requires going beyond lectures to practice. But to dismiss lectures as a simple broadcast of inherently less value I find problematic.”

Jill Hurst-Wahl

Other colleagues contributed to the exchange. My T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, in a series of posts, began by saying “I would add Larry Lessig as a person who gives engaging lectures. From what I’ve seen of her, I think Rep. Katie Porter would be a very engaging lecturer.”

Quoting from the original article, Jill continued: “‘Instead, let’s dig deeply and critically into both, reflect upon how to improve our practices, and apply sound teaching methods and practices to create learning engagements that are captivating and profound.’ I like the phrase ‘how to improve our practices.’ We are not taught as teachers how to improve our lectures. I remember when I joined my academic institution, I asked for advice on how to prepare for three-hour class and was told that what I did was up to me. I would have welcomed advice and training! Over the years, I have learned from workshops, by watching others, and by doing. Imagine if all teachers—no matter how they got into the profession—were taught on how to be engaging when they needed to lecture?”

And directing her final contribution to Dave, she added the following: “Like a lecture, if a book, song, video, etc. causes me to think deeply and have a conversation with myself, I will learn.”

Laura Fothergill

The final contribution (at least up to this moment) comes from long-time ATD (Association for Talent Development) South Florida Chapter colleague Laura Fothergill: “Loved the article, really dislike the title and perpetuation of us vs them (lecture vs technology). Can we stop even putting this into the ethos? Why not title it ‘Be critical, be reflective, be better’ or ‘Lose your Assumptions.’ By spinning the concepts into either or and inviting that conversation we are not helping individual faculty with their own personal professional development.” So, in a relatively brief period of time, we went from lectures and learning to whether lectures and lecturers (and presenters, speakers, instructors, and teachers) could even be engaging or whether engagement was exclusive to facilitators. And, just for good measure, Dave and Jill took us down the intriguing path of what learning is and how we learn, with Laura advocating for elimination of the us vs. them element of our explorations.

Although the obvious starting point for me is a preference for a “learners as co-conspirators in the learning process” approach to learning (as compared to the boringly passive approach to learning that is obvious in the worst of lectures and lecturers) in the settings in which I work, I was intrigued by the fond memories of what I had learned from the best lecturers I have heard—and I also thought about how my own approach to “lectures” has continued to evolve. When I work synchronously face-to-face onsite, online, or in blended environments (combining onsite and online learning into a cohesive, seamless package), I play with and combine numerous approaches. I find it rewarding, for example, to follow a Flipped Classroom model approach by providing learners with pre-session prep work (videos or short articles) so that our time together “face to face” onsite or online focuses on application of what we have learned—with a strong emphasis on what the learners will do with their newly-acquired knowledge/skills the minute our time together comes to an end. In asynchronous settings (e.g., through the four-week online courses I design and facilitate for the American Library Association), I start with weekly “typed lectures” that provide my own content interspersed with plenty of links to other people’s videos, articles, and online, easily accessible resources to support the learners’ explorations. I also include focused exercises that encourage the learners to apply what they are learning, interact with other learners, and even adapt the assignments in ways that produce something they can use in their own workplaces while and after the course is underway. The emphasis is always on having learners define what they need to know and encouraging them to focus on what addresses their learning needs as quickly as possible.

Just as participation in a creative online learning opportunity exploring The Innovator’s Mindset (led by George Couros in 2017) made me rethink my perceptions about what “reading” is in the early 21st century, the exchanges via Facebook have inspired me to further rethink my perceptions about what a great “lecture” is in contemporary times. It is focused. It is engaging. It inspires inquisitiveness by serving as an invitation to explore a topic further. It can—but doesn’t necessarily have to—be creative in its use of tools available to the lecturer and the people sharing in that learning experience. (I often think, for example, of how Jonathan Haidt so effectively turned the TED Talk lecture format on its head by doing a formal lecture that “ended” a few minutes early so he could offer an entirely different version, during the final few minutes of his allotted time, by seamlessly and in the most stunningly successful of ways completely integrating video into the live presentation. I also think of how effectively Eric Whitacre incorporated a demonstration of a virtual choir into a live lecture on virtual choirs at a conference I attended a few years ago.) The learning, in each of these cases, was effective, engaging, inspirational, and transformative—because of, not in spite of, the “lecture” format.   The rethinking continued over the weekend when I finally made time to watch the first couple of lectures in The Great Courses’ series on “The Learning Brain”—a series of 24 30-minute lectures captured on a CD and accompanied by a course guidebook. As I sat there in the comfort of my own home with the book in hand and the first few minutes of the video playing, an obvious revelation struck: The lecture can very much be a like a part of a spoken (audio) book, and the book can very much be like a set of printed lectures–even if it isn’t actually one of those lovely books providing the text of lectures. Both, when produced effectively, can be and are engaging. Dropping them completely from our learning toolkits makes no sense to me, and arguing against them in absolute, non-nuanced terms, seems counterproductive. The important decision to be made is when each is the best tool for a particular learning situation, and then to produce the best version of the learning resource that we possibly can produce. So we learn. With our learners. To inspire the best results possible.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-first in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


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