Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Lectures and Motivation

Ultimately, all real teaching beyond that of early childhood (when the child is passively being 'filled' - or inculcated - with that which society deems necessary) depends on motivation : the pupil must want to learn.

This applies very obviously to lectures. For lectures to work, to be effective, depends on the class being motivated to learn.

If the class is not motivated then they will not learn - they will daydream, doodle, flirt, engage in social networking, surf the internet... anything other than the cognitively-difficult business of paying attention and striving to understand.

If the class is not motivated, then the only way that attention can be compelled is either by terror (notably fear of failing exams and being thrown out/ disgraced) or by entertainment.

So the degenerate phenomenon of TED talks is what happens when the lecture degenerates to the point of mere entertainment - amusing, shocking, or exciting five minute sound-bites - desperately striving to grab and hold an unmotivated audience's attention. In a word: degenerate. (Or have I already said that?)

At a lower level, the need to entertain is what drives lecturers to use visual aids and multi-media - so the class sits and watches video or movie segments instead of learning.

Or, perhaps there are innovative 'teaching' methods such as getting the class to chat among themselves (break-out sessions), have votes, or do pretty much anything except learn the material - for which they have zero interest.

In sum - there are situations, many situations, in fact most situations in modern middle and higher education - in which effective lectures cannot be given, because the class does not want to know.

In those situations, lectures are perhaps no worse than the alternatives - but the whole thing is a dishonest waste of time, energy and resources; no teaching can occur, because nobody really wants it to happen (or, at least, the class don't want it enough to overcome their own natural tendencies to idleness and distractability).

Note added: My primary objection to TED talks is actually not that they have nothing to do with education; but that they are media for the mass propagation of vomit-inducing smugness.  


ElectricAngel said...

Hey! Don't knock entertainment as the pablum that hides the pill...

75% of the brain material dedicated to processing inputs from the senses (citation: Unfolding the Napkin, by Dan Roam) goes to process visual cues. Only 25% is given over to other senses. There is a definite reason for using visual cues: people remember them much better. Or are you arguing that the people who blight our landscape and art museums with ugliness do not know what they are doing? That a propagandist like Leni Reifenstahl had not idea of the effects of her visual imagery in Triumph of the Will?

The Academy should learn to baptize corrupt visual psychological manipulation tools to the proper purpose of learning. The book Unfolding the Napkin is a good place to start.

Anonymous said...

Most all TED talks are indeed nauseating. The only good one I can remember was the one Gary Wilson gave on the negative effects of pornography. Yes, that's right, an anti-pornography TED talk, if you can believe it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@EA - Yes, but http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/the-rationale-for-teaching-by-lecture.html

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - Nice one. but please use a pseudonym - I usually delete Anononymous comments unread (because they are usually spambots)

Adam G. said...

Is there any real difference between the TED talks and the Chautaqua lectures a century ago?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam G. I hope so, but I have never read the script of an actual Chautauqua. My understanding is that Chautauqua lectures were, by modern standards, extremely long, uncompromizing, detailed and requiring sustained concentration from the audience.

ElectricAngel said...

Motivation is the critical thing. Teaching is impossible, but learning is eminently possible, and the motivation is the thing.

The best TED talks combine visuals with lively explanation, energy, and humour. See, for example, Rory Sutherland's Life lessons from an ad man. But those are the top; most are dreck, and fail to entertain, or teach.

Ignorance is a form of slavery, and the instructors job is to leave his students freer of it than they were when they met him. However, you cannot free slaves. You can show them the path to freedom, but they must walk it; if you pull them along the path, they remain slaves.

The book Switch by the Heath brothers offers the relevant metaphor here. The human mind is like a rider on an elephant; the rider is the rational mind, the elephant the emotional one. A rider will try to direct an elephant, but if an elephant wants to go one place, it will ignore the rider. They suggest three tools for getting people to change, which is what learning is: direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.

As a Catholic, I have come to see sin as the slavery it is. It would be simple for Jesus to have simply died for our sins and we receive salvation, but Jesus shows the path we must follow. Confession means accepting the path he set, and setting heart and mind to the change of living in accord with Truth. We must walk the path as learners of holiness, as students must walk the path themselves in learning anything.