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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
10th-Aug-2007 05:13 pm
There are people blessed by their encounter with a great, charismatic teacher whose example they emulate for the rest of their lives. I did not have such an encounter. There is no teacher I’d like to emulate. The best teachers were those that left me to my own devices. If they would just give assignments, grade, explain mistakes, show a better solution, and point to the right books - that would be enough. But no: it was endless lecturing, and it spoiled everything. I hate lectures; I also do not understand the point of lecturing, especially to large audiences, that is to say more than one person. It would be so much simpler to read and ask questions later. I always end up reading anyway. I find following lectures difficult, wasteful. My attention is constantly distracted by the stream of words. The person who mutters these words stays in the way of understanding. The sound of the voice. The face with the moving lips. The hands. The lecture drags on and on. It is impossible to stop and reflect, go back and check things out. It is impossible to skip forward and find what the lecture builds towards to. There are lecturers who are better at the art of exposition, but none beats a written text. I skipped most of the lectures back in college, and those I attended were torture. I understand that in mediaeval Europe this way of self-mutilation was the only method. I can imagine that there were few decent textbooks in the more recent past, and those were expensive. Perhaps there are people who learn by ear better than by eye, although they should be having trouble teaching themselves later on. Maybe such people have to be put together and droned upon. However, I do not think these folks are many. Why does this method of education persist? It is not education only. Why do we have all these plenary lectures, meetings, conferences, presentations? If these are social events, why spoil them by wasting each other's time? Even poster presentations are better than eight straight hours of 15 min talks. Why not have parties instead? Or the real symposia, the Greek ones, with red wine and double flute players? Can the professional hierarchy be established in some other way than through vocalization in front of tired people who cannot leave?

Newton and Euler did not attend conferences. They did no go to workshops, summer schools, study groups, and panels. If they wanted to talk to someone, they went and talked to this someone. If they couldn't, they wrote letters. Nobody complained, and the best science ever done was done in that way. The conferences were for salesmen, traders, and lawyers. Then, in the 1870s, the conferences became the norm of scientific interaction. Lecturing won. Now we have electronic preprints, web access to journals, e-mail, telephone, airmail, uploadable power point presentations. The opportunity to interact with each other is enormous. And yet orally delivered lectures remain the modus operandi.

Why? Would it ever change back?

11th-Aug-2007 12:07 am (UTC)
Yes. I asked myself these questions thousand times. I asked others why do they like lectures. They do have some reasons, but I always forget them, because I do not find any of them convincing. Now I keep a list of 5 reasons as a file.

I skipped most of lectures during my university years.

Would you mind if I give a link to your post in my journal?
11th-Aug-2007 12:28 am (UTC)
Go forward, please. I'd like to know the answer. Are there actually people who enjoy this?
11th-Aug-2007 12:57 am (UTC)
The way a person delivers a lecture makes all the difference. There is no point in boring lectures, but many lectures that I heard in my life were not boring at all to me. I did not need to do much reading afterwards. Usually I understood the material immediately, and I remember it much better now than what I learned purely by reading. (You can ask if this did me any good :) Well, I am not a scientist but occasionally I do put what I learned at the university to professional use and my sallary is comparable to that of a university professor).

I guess something can be said for the benefit of human contact. Seeing a professor who clearly knows his stuff serves to reassure the student and also teaches him how to present his own knowledge.
11th-Aug-2007 02:41 am (UTC)
I take it for granted that some lectures are more entertaining than the others. The question is, why have them at all? Is it the most efficient way to teach math and science? Is it the most efficient way to present scientific information? I answer no to both of these questions. The point of education is to teach the students to teach themselves. The latter is done by reading. Lecturing does not help this objective. Certainly, it is not the best way to present a scientific study. I am glad that you remember the lectures of your professor, but by reading the textbook under his guidance you would probably learn more, and this knowledge and the habit of absorbing this knowledge could've been critical for your future. The charismatic professor could've spent his time with you more productively by tutoring and mentoring you, by solving problems together, or simply by answering your questions. Nobody argues against human contact. It is the highly formalized and archaic form of this contact that brought my complaint.

The point of lecturing is to teach your charges how to lecture?
11th-Aug-2007 02:23 am (UTC)
В качестве рационализации -

нужно как-то соединить результаты действия интеллекта и личность, живую жизнь человека - увидеть не безличные плоды мысли, а судьбу и выбор.
11th-Aug-2007 03:47 am (UTC)
I agree, but why does the lecture-test format remain the common way of achieving this connection? Tutorial system is superior academically, it offers more personal contact, and it is 600 years old.
11th-Aug-2007 06:51 am (UTC)
The current explosion in online education is filling the non-lecture-based-education niche. We will soon see how effective it is. I personally doubt that it is growing so fast because there really is such a great demand for alternative education, IMHO it's driven primarily by economics.
You and Sowa were not average college students, so I doubt your experiences can be extrapolated to others. Yes, there always is a small group of highly motivated and intelligent students who would educate themselves no matter what, but the rest need daily prodding, consulting, close supervision and all sorts of babysitting in hopes that some day they will grow up, and a few of them do, too.
11th-Aug-2007 07:03 am (UTC)
But lectures do not provide daily prodding, consulting, close supervision or any sort of babysitting! That's one of the points!
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11th-Aug-2007 08:40 am (UTC)
Хорошая лекция лучше плохого текста. Хорошо написанный текст лучше неудачной лекции. На вопрос, что лучше - хорошая лекция или хороший текст - я бы ответил так.

В целях обучения лучше хорошая лекция. "Хорошая" означает продуманный темпоритм, диалог с аудиторией, мотивация слушателей и т.п.

Что касается лекционной формы доклада научных результатов, я считаю общепринятый формат малоэффективным. Логика построения печатных трудов (по крайней мере, в математике) диктуется необходимостью компактного изложения строгих доказательств, что хорошо для проверки, но малопригодно для понимания смысла и новизны методов. Устные выступления на конференциях я бы на 10% посвящал собственно формулировке результата, а остальные 90% отдал бы для объяснения на пальцах "почему так", "откуда", "в чем смысл", "как к этому пришел" и т.п., т.е. тому, что в статье или книге рассказывать не форматно.
11th-Aug-2007 10:05 am (UTC)
"Логика построения печатных трудов (по крайней мере, в математике) диктуется необходимостью компактного изложения строгих доказательств, что хорошо для проверки, но малопригодно для понимания смысла и новизны методов."

На самом деле это совершенно необязательно. И вовсе не помогает проверке. В хорошо написанных статьях и книгах объясняется и смысл, и новизна, и все такое. К сожалению, объяснить "как к этому пришел" объяснить почти никогда не удается, поскольку автор обычно сам не знает, как он к этому пришел.
11th-Aug-2007 09:15 am (UTC)
I think I can agree in general - at least for me reading a textbook is usually better (but definitely not always) than attending a lecture mainly because I can regulate the process of "knowledge retrieval" - spend more time on some topics/paragraphs/whatever and just look through some other things.
But I see that lectures are very important as a (best?) way to organize study process for a large number of students. They can be considered as time-tables for learning activities. Suppose there is one-semester course based on one textbook and suppose reading a book is better than lecturing. How do you organize this process for 100 students? You can collect them all at the beginning and say that they should read this book and then pass an exam on some certain date. That's ok but it is kind of unrealistic that students read the textbook properly (most of them, I think, will read it just a few days before an exam). So on this first gathering you should also provide students with some sort of scheduling - read this part on this week and read that part after and so on. Will students read according to such a schedule? Again there is not much guarantee so it looks like that the better way is to insist on collecting students each week in one room, where they read (just read, the discussion of what they've read is done afterwards on seminars) a particular part of the textbook. At this stage, there is just one more step to invite some guy, who already read the textbook, for retelling the book content to students.

p.s. There might be an "evolutionary" reason here as well. It might be true (at least partially) that when conceiving information for human beings is easier in oral form than in written form since our listening skills are significantly older that our reading skills.
11th-Aug-2007 02:11 pm (UTC)
There is no guarantee that the students will attend the lectures, and they don't. Then, it is not either/or. You can do better than giving reading assignments. You can ask the students give talks to each other under your supervision. You can ask them to write essays and follow their progress in this way. You can split them into study groups. Retelling textbooks is the worst method imaginable. As for the evolutionary development, in the Antiquity the standard form of education was dialogical. Lectures became popular only in the Middle Ages, and very slowly at that. You are forgetting how many educational methods of similar antiquity and scholastic origin have been abandoned: public disputations, trivium/quadrium, etc. Lectures were originally invented to ensure that the education is dogmatic rather than dialectic. Later on, lectures were almost completely superceded by the tutorial system. Then there was the revival of lecturing in Germany whose academic system in its late-19th century form is presently adopted worldwide. The reason for that revival was attempting to instill conformity of learning. There are historical reasons for the spreading of the lecture system, but these reasons are little to be proud of.
12th-Aug-2007 06:50 am (UTC)
Why? Because nothing can motivate a student better than a talented teacher.
12th-Aug-2007 06:47 pm (UTC)
True, but this motivation occurs through personal contacts rather than lecturing.
18th-Sep-2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
На 100% согласен с автором. Наконец-то кто-то это высказал!!!
За свою мат-меховскую жизнь я ни разу не понял полностю ни одной лекции, потому что задумывался о своем или просто впадал в транс (легко гипнотизируюсь) или просто медленно связывал содержание текущей лекции с предыдущими лекциями.

Уж в наш-то век компютеров, легко распечатываемых текстов и интернета можно все лекции отменить (кроме одноразовых, транслируемых в интернете, чтобы был такой редкий аристократический театральный жанр: одноразовая лекция,которую человек долго готовит, репетирует, а потом всему миру читает).

Totally agree with the author. Finally someone said it! Throughout my life at the maths department, I never understood a single lecture: I would either doze into my own thoughts or go into an almost hypnotic trance (I am easily hypnotisable) or would simply be slow in connecting the stuff with the material of previous lectures which I am somehow supposed to remember.

In our age of computers, easily-printable handouts and the internet, it is possible to cancel all lectures (apart from one-offs, broadcasted in the internet to the whole world... let it be a new aristocratic theatrical genre of a well-prepared, well-rehersed Lecture!)
18th-Sep-2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
See the next post. There are, actually, arguments in favor of lectures.
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