Lectures, Meetings and Real Learning

I’ve spent a bunch of times in meetings this week. To be honest most of these meetings have been survivable only because they were conference calls or Windows Live Meetings (they are run over the network and the computer). That means that I have done the sort of thing that would drive a presenter crazy if they could actually see what I was doing. Why? Because I can’t easily sit there and be lectured at. I seem to remember having students with the same problem.

There are several types of meetings but two basic types are meetings to present information and meetings to discuss things. These have parallels in the way classrooms are run. In the first kind of meeting you have a similarity with the old “pundit on the platform” style of lecture. Someone talks, and talks and talks. The people in the audience try to absorb all the information and perhaps take notes. Perhaps there is time for questions or even an allowance for interruptions for questions. But mostly one person does all the talking. The audience sometimes has to struggle to stay awake if the speaker is not totally entrancing. Clearly there are some diminishing returns as the talk (meeting or lecture) goes longer and longer.

The second type of meeting is highly interactive. Ideals and discussion are requested and are the main reason for the meeting. The pace is generally a lot faster than the lecture type of meeting. People stay awake because they want to participate as well as keep up with the information being generated. Everyone has to think at those meetings. These meetings are a lot like classroom discussions where students are doing a lot of the talking.

I tend to leave the first kind of meeting wondering “why didn’t they just write all that up and send me an email.” I think lectures are like that sometimes. How many times have you heard someone complain about an instructor that all they do is read from the book or from notes? Not particularly interesting. I think that a lot of classes would go better if all the students did the assigned reading in advance and class time could be used for more interactive discussion. But all too often we don’t do it that way. Why? A couple of reasons I think.

One is that students are often unwilling to do the reading. Sometimes it is because they are lazy and what things told to them. Sometimes it is because the books are deadly boring. Sometimes I think it is just because we, parents, teachers, society, just do not hold people responsible for doing the reading. And I don’t just mean reading for a course. We’ve probably all been to meetings where someone skipped the suggested pre-meeting reading. The leader often just tells them what they missed rather than saying “well you’re useless. Try to catch up.” Or perhaps the same thing in more diplomatic terms.

The other reason is that a lecture is easier to prepare for and run than an interactive discussion. There are fewer unexpected questions or tangents that actually make the instructor or meeting leader think. Plus of course there is the matter of preparing the pre-meeting resources enough in advance that everyone can get them and read them.

Lastly there are some things that just have to be shown to be understood. That in my opinion is the best, and one of the few, good reasons for a traditional lecture. Even then though it is best if the student can follow along with the instructor. We all know that people remember what they do a lot better than what they see or hear.

I wonder if we could train our students better to do the assigned reading? If we did that could we cover more ground and by using more interactive classroom discussions teach them better? I think so. What do you think?

By the way, if my boss is reading this your meetings are the sort of interactive ones I like and give my full attention to. Really.

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