Last week I gave a lecture to people who lecture-- I spoke at a function for the Optical Society of America at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester. My topic was How to Make a Scientist and I billed it as a "conversation" not a lecture. My bona fide is that one of my sons, Josh, is indeed, a scientist--an optical engineer. So, full disclosure, he proposed to the OSA to invite me to speak. Imagine that! I, a children's science book author, have something of value to impart to an august body of higher-ed professors with hard-won scientific skills and thousands of hours of lecturing behind them and degrees upon degrees.
I figured that I'd better start by being entertaining. I described a scientist as a person who:
1. Asks questions about observations.
2. Plays with the environment– play means trying stuff out to see what happens.
3. Looks for causal relationships.
4. Repeats the behavior that demonstrated causal relationships.
5. Starts building concepts based on observations and experiments that suggest other questions and activities.
What kind of person exhibits all these qualities? I showed them a picture of a baby. I then told them that most professional scientists have discovered science by fourth grade and I polled the audience. How many of them knew about science as children? Almost every hand went up. I quoted a distinguished Finnish educator who told me, "Education cannot be rushed. It's a law of nature: It takes nine months to make a baby and thirty years to make an engineer."
Then, through my books, I showed them my process, which I describe in the post "How I Teach STEM." I opened the floor to questions after I had "lectured" for about a half an hour. I was startled at the number and the kinds of questions they asked, mostly about how to engage students who seem to be anything but attentive. But then I recalled that most academics are thrown into classrooms as "teaching assistants" with absolutely no instruction in pedagogy.
Some may be natural teachers but most work under the assumption that if they say it, the student learns it. Besides, the emphasis on the part of the university is on research not teaching. They get away with it because today's top tier students have, for the most part, learned how to learn. Many are already autodidacts
Josh once told me a story about one of his undergraduate TA instructors in optics who was a foreign national, with a heavy accent, which no one could understand. He wrote equations with his right hand as he talked with his back to his students and then proceeded to erase what he wrote with his left hand. The students took notes frantically, understanding nothing, in the hopes that they would discover something in their notes that they could find in a book after the lecture so they could figure what the lecture was about. The only reason for attending the lecture was to learn what content would probably show up on the final exam. The attrition rate for optics majors was 50%.
Lectures can be entertaining, even riveting when there is a great deal prior knowledge on the part of the audience. A learned speaker can shed new light on esoteric subjects that delight as they inform. The speaker can capture an audience by showing his/her own enthusiasm and passion for the content. And the speaker can engage an audience by asking questions of them-- who are they? Why are they here? What are their expectations for this class?
In this information age, the lecture has three main functions:
1. To present content in such a way that it motivates students to want to learn it and will do so on their own after class.
2. To connect students to the importance and value the course has had on the development of knowledge. Why they need to know this stuff.
3. To validate what the students have studied to solidify their own emerging knowledge.
And yes, to preview what will undoubtedly be on the final exam. In all cases, if the professor imbues the lecture with his/her own passions and enthusiasms, if he or she reveals their own humanity, their words from the lectern will not fall on deaf ears. Like writing, itself, it's a skill that can't be taught but it can be learned. It will mean that many professors will have to step out of their comfort zones.