10 February 2006

On listening to lectures (again)

Building on Wednesday's posting;

The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) carried an article today on Richard Sennett. (Sorry I can't point you directly to the article, it's in the "Subscription only" area; but you can get a sense of his ideas from Laurie Taylor's "Thinking Allowed" programme on BBC Radio 4 of 18 January, including a chance to listen to whole thing. It is well worth listening to.)

However, the article starts, painstakingly re-typed as a short quotation which does not I think violate copyright (hey, I care about mine, I respect others);

'Just after Richard Sennett arrived in the UK in 1999 [...] he got his first introduction to British bureaucracy in the form of a teaching quality officer* [who] sat in on a lecture on Max Weber and [...] seemed to be busy writing throughout. Sennett later found out that the officer was ticking boxes for the number of times he made eye contact in the lecture. When Sennett later asked the officer what he felt he had learned about Weber from the lecture, the officer said that he was not interested in Weber. "The content was not important, just the process," Sennett says.'
GARNER M (2006) "'Craftsmanship' is laid low by quick-fix fever"
Times Higher Education Supplement 10 February 2006 (No. 1,729) p. 18
[* "Teaching quality officer" sounds like a QA commissar; I'm almost certain that, particularly at the LSE, this is something of an overstatement. And, for what it's worth, eye-contact in lectures does matter, as I have noted earlier in this blog; but the point is still well-made.]

We'll come back to that. However, today I discovered (not before time) the virtues of the "Blank" (sometimes "Black") button on the remote control for the data projector. It simply shuts down the projected image, and it is liberating! It overcomes quite a lot of my objections to the use of presentation packages in lectures. There are other ways of achieving the same effect, but not as simply and elegantly; I hope your kit has got a similar facility.

That set me thinking about writing a page, which I may do shortly, on the sensitive use of presentation package techniques ("ppt" -- any resemblance to a certain trademarked Microsoft file extension is entirely intentional, but you can get just as impressive results from OpenOffice, which is free, and you can even save the results as ".ppt" files—rant over).

But reflection often rambles, and in this case the article and the eye-contact point and ppt came together. I had noticed the eye-contact issue in a teaching session where I could not understand the language much of the time; so my mind was highly focused on the process rather than the content. On the other hand, I do observe many teaching sessions (as a teacher-educator) where I find it hard to concentrate on the process because the content is so interesting; in fact, it is a good marker for a good session that the process slips out of my attention**)

And so, (I have finally got to the point) I do sometimes find myself able to empathise with the students. And ppt often sends many of the wrong messages. I'm not quite as convinced as Edward Tufte that "Powerpoint(tm) is evil!" but I can see his point, from the receiving end. Imagine sitting there (as a student) in the lecture theatre being bombarded with an inexorable barrage of bullet points. You will eventually think, "Gee, there is so much to know about this stuff", and "I have to remember this!" So your naive aspirations as a student to understand the subject are driven into the ground by the pile-driver of (apparently essential) "facts". Most of them, of course, are not "facts". They are mainly the lecturer's cues about what to talk about next, but she thought it would help the students to flag them all; after all, aren't "visual aids" desirable? Yes, but...

On Wednesday, I would have appreciated a few markers as to where we were in the argument, but the argument was what mattered, much more than the individual components of the evidence, and Trevor Phillips knew that. Using ppt to flag every stage and every point is in danger of of devaluing the whole in favour of the parts—and then we complain about "surface learning". It's not the whole story, but in some measure we asked for it!

** I have only once actively slipped out of role as an observer, though. I was observing a really good Access class at a college, when the teacher (my student) referred to the work of Roy Nash on how self-fulfilling prophecies and labelling processes happened in the classroom (mid '70s); I had actually been present at Roy's initial presentation of his work, and it just seemed the right thing to do to pipe up and say so, and to bring alive what might otherwise have been just another dry reference. (Sorry, this research does not show up on a web search.)


  1. One of the comments in my course evaluation survey this year was that 'the lecturer sometimes missed out powerpoint slides'(!) How terrible of me.

  2. I can't agree more with your general thrust. I used to teach (and still lecture at University) and now I run a company which does presentation skills training - including for teachers and lecturers.

    PowerPoint isn't evil any more than a gun is evil - both can be used for the cause of good... but it's sooooo much easier to use them for the bad reasons! :)

    One tip I give teachers and others is to design their entire lession/lecture/whatever on paper without even turning their computer on: most people can't be creative and technical at the same time. Some of them decide not *ever* to turn their computers on but at of the others, the difference in what they chose to put onto the presentation software is spectacular.

    FWIW I use OpenOffice, as does the rest of my company - we don't miss PowerPoint at all!



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