Friday, February 17, 2012

Why Good Classes Fail

"The problem of why good classes fail has become a bit of an obsession for me lately. I visit several colleges and universities every semester to talk to faculty about teaching and learning, and everywhere I go I try to sneak away for just a bit and slip into the back of an unsuspecting class just to see how things are going. This has allowed me to see a broad range of techniques and styles, and to see how students respond to them. What inspires this essay is that it is more often than not that I am disappointed by what I find. At worst, I see people feeling disengaged, disconnected, and alienated, and that’s just the professors. At best, I see rooms full of people dutifully playing the game of school, listening carefully, taking notes, etc. … which is okay as far as it goes, but I rarely see people getting lit up, inspired, excited, upset, or even a little uncomfortable (which would be a pretty good place to be for a breakthrough learning moment). The apparent levels of disinterest are astounding, especially in the face of rich content that has included everything from the capacity of ants to create eerily human-like civilizations to the promiscuous (though changing) sexual practices of teenage Trobriand Islanders. (“Really!?” I’m thinking as I sit in the back of the room, “You are not even a little bit interested in this?!” and I realize I could just as well be thinking this about the professor, who seems to be showing as little interest in the material as the students.)"

Wesch is describing the tension that all of us involved in technology-enhanced learning go through: the ease with which the use of social tools establishes bonding capital in a cohort without building the bridging capital that we see. Hence the failure of the Small Worlds and Scireadr projects. Like Wesch, I am still struggling towards the optimum blend.

A.J. Cann


  1. Did you think Wesch was talking about lectures or smaller group classes? It fascinates me that even those critical of lectures (Donald Clark, Stephen Downes, Mike Wesch) seem to rely on them as the main vehicle for getting their own message across.

  2. Clearly there's an enormous difference between a really good lecture, one where the speaker really connects with the audience - no matter how large the audience is - and a bad lecture which is a recitation of PowerPoint. Think back to the keynotes you've heard, good and bad ;-)

  3. What you both highlight is that it's nonsense to simply declare "The lecture is dead", because that takes a broad brush to a large scope of discussion and simply paints over it.

    When Donald Clark was at ALT-C Conference in 2010, he said lectures needed a complete rethink. I argued, "If new techniques don’t resemble lectures, the result has been to abandon lectures, not rethink them".

    Personalities are different and what works for one person won't work for another. Some will be keen to explore what works best, while others will carry on regardless. That's not about the lecture, it's about the individual delivering it.

    Here's to "struggling towards the optimum blend". :)

  4. For what it's worth, I have never been against lectures (and in this case, I was talking about both). As I recently noted in a piece on the Chronicle, "Jeff [from the Chronicle] recently called me to discuss an upcoming presentation he is doing at SXSW facing the provocative question of whether or not lectures are dead. I think I surprised him a bit by actually championing the lecture, and pointing out that more participatory classroom methods can actually be bigger failures than lecture if they are not approached appropriately. I later clarified to him in an e-mail, “My main point is that participatory teaching methods simply will not work if they do not begin with a deep bond between teacher and student. Importantly, this bond must be built through mutual respect, care, and an ongoing effort to know and understand one another. Somebody using traditional teaching methods (lecture) can foster these bonds and be as effective as somebody using more participatory methods. The participation and “active learning” that is necessary for true understanding and application may not happen in the classroom, but the lecture is just one piece of a much larger ecosystem of the college campus. An effective lecture can inspire deep late night conversations with peers, mad runs to the library for more information, and significant intellectual throwdowns in the minds of our students.”" In this regard, I agree with AJC and Martin.

  5. Thanks for leaving a comment Michael. I agree the the lecture itself is no bigger a barrier than any other delivery channel, but in adopting new technologies, there is a danger that the focus shifts from focus on learner engagement to technical issues. That's why I quoted you as I did - has the adoption of technology helped or hindered the bond between student and teacher? My answer would be - both.

  6. Definitely agree. I'm working on a book right now trying to locate the disposition and capacities needed to generate the best learning environment given your subject matter and student body. In general, I think every method and technology needs to be kept on the table as a possibility, and then the prof/teacher needs to 1. exercise their empathy to understand their students and where they are coming from, 2. reconnect with their own journey of learning to re-discover what originally excited them, what challenges they faced, and how they overcame them, and 3. to keep wondering about the big questions that can provide the relevance and connection for the material they face in class, providing an overall sense of purpose to what is happening in the classroom

  7. Sounds like another one for my reading list :-)