The changing nature of literacy. Part 2: Lecturing

This post is the second part in a four-part series on how education delivery is changing, and the set of literacies required in today’s world. Part 1 looked at the changing world of textbooks. This post looks at the oral equivalent of textbooks: direct instruction or lecturing.

There’s been some recent agitation in education circles about an article by Paul E. Peterson claiming that direct instruction is more effective than the ‘hands-on’ instruction that's so popular nowadays. His claim is based on a recent study that found that increased time on lecture-style teaching versus problem-solving activities improved student test scores results (for math and science, for 8th grade students). Above-average students appeared to benefit more than below-average, although the difference was not statistically significant.

On the other hand, a college study (abstract) found that a large first-year physics class taught in a traditional lecture style by an experienced and highly rated professor performed more poorly on several measures than another class taught only by engaging in small-group problem-solving tasks. Attendance improved by 20% in the experimental class, and engagement (measured by observers and "clicker" responses) nearly doubled. Though the experimental class didn’t cover as much material as the traditional class, dramatically more students showed up for the unit test, and they scored significantly better (average score of 74% vs 41%).

It must be noted, however, that this experiment only ran for a week (3 hours instruction).

But the researchers of the middle-grade study did not conclude that lecturing was superior, or that their results applied to college students. Their very reasonable conclusion was that “Newer teaching methods might be beneficial for student achievement if implemented in the proper way, but our findings imply that simply inducing teachers to shift time in class from lecture-style presentations to problem solving without ensuring effective implementation is unlikely to raise overall student achievement in math and science. On the contrary, our results indicate that there might even be an adverse impact on student learning.”

The whole issue reminds me of the phonics debate. I don’t know what it is about education that gets people so polarized, when it seems so obvious that there are no simple answers. What makes an effective strategy is not simply the strategy itself, but how it is carried out, who is using it, and when they are using it.

In this case, the quality and timing of these ‘problem-solving activities’ is perhaps central. The rule of thumb that twice as much time should be allocated to problem-solving activities as to direct instruction is perhaps being applied with too little understanding about the role and usefulness of specific activities.

But it’s obvious that there are going to be strong developmental differences. The ‘best’ means of teaching 18-year-olds is not going to suit 5-year-olds, and vice versa. So we can’t conclude anything about middle school by looking at college studies, or college by looking at middle school studies.

So, bearing in mind that a discussion of college lecturing has little to do with direct instruction in schools, let’s look a little further into college lectures, given that this is the predominant method of instruction at this level.

First of all, we must ask what students are doing during lectures. Given many teachers’ distress at their students’ activity on phones and laptops during class, it’s worth noting the findings of two recent studies that spied on college students in class rather than relying on self-reporting.

The first study (pdf) involved 45 students who allowed monitoring software to be installed. Distinguishing between “productive” applications (Microsoft Office and course-related websites) from “distractive” ones (e-mail, instant messaging, and non-course-related websites), the researchers found that non-course-related software was active about 42% of the time. However only one type of these distractive applications was significantly correlated with poorer academic performance: instant messaging. This despite the fact that IM windows had the shortest average duration. (It’s also worth noting that instant-messaging use was massively under-estimated by students (by 40% vs, for example, 7% for email use)).

It seems likely that this has to do with switching costs. For those who read my recent blog post on working memory, you might recall that switching focus from one item to another has high costs. Moreover, it seems that the more frequently (and thus briefly) you switch focus, the higher the cost.

The other study used human observers rather than spyware, with obvious drawbacks. But the finding I found interesting was the dramatic jump between first-year and second- and third-year law students: more than half of the latter who came to class with laptops used them for non-class purposes more than half the time, compared to 4% of first-year students. While the teacher took this as a signal to ban laptops in his upper-year courses, perhaps he should have rather taken it as evidence that his students had become more discerning about what was relevant. We need to know how this laptop use mapped against performance before drawing conclusions.

But not all teachers are reflexively against distractive technology. The banning of cellphones from classrooms, and general distress about social media, is starting to be offset by teachers setting up “backchannels” in their classes. These digital channels are said to encourage shy and overwhelmed students to ask questions and make comments during class.

Of course, most teachers are still anti, and a lot of that may be driven by a fear of losing control of the class, or being unable to keep up with the extra stream of information (particularly in the face of the students’ facility in multitasking).

And maybe some teachers are so antagonistic toward distractive technology because they feel it’s insulting. It implies they’re boring.

Well, unfortunately, many students do find a lot of their lectures boring. A 2009 study of student boredom suggested that almost 60% of students find at least half their lectures boring, of which half found most or all of their lectures boring.

But I don’t think the answer to this is to remove their toys. Do you think they’ll listen if they don’t have anything else to do? The study found bored students daydream (75% of students), doodle (66%), chat to friends (50%), send texts (45%), and pass notes to friends (38%).

It’s not that teachers have to entertain them! Granted it’s easier to hold students’ attention if you’re doing explosive chemistry experiments, but students really aren’t so shallow that you have to provide spectacles. They are there (at college level at least) because they want to learn. But you do have to present the information in a way that facilitates learning.

One of the main contributors to student boredom is apparently the (bad) use of PowerPoint.

But even practical sessions, supposedly more engaging than lectures, appear to bore students. Lab work and computer sessions achieved the highest boredom ratings in the study.

Because boredom is not as simple a concept as it might appear. Humans are designed for learning. This is our strength. Other animals may be fast, may be strong, may have sharp claws or teeth, or venom. Humans are smart, and curious, and we know that knowledge is power. Humans like to learn. So what goes wrong during the education process?

Well, one of the problems is that there’s a cognitive “sweet spot”. If you make something too difficult, most people will be put off. If you make something too easy, they won’t bother. The sweet spot of learning is that point where the amount of cognitive effort is not too little and not too great — of course you have to find that point, and a complicating factor is that this varies with individuals.

One area where creators have had a lot of success in finding that sweet spot (because they try very hard) is video games.

How can we harness the power that video games seem to have? A book called "Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" points out that creating Wikipedia has so far taken about 100 million hours of work, while people spend twice that many hours playing World of Warcraft in a single week.

Some of the features of good games that researchers believe are important are: instant feedback, small rewards for small progress, occasional unexpected rewards, continual encouragement from the computer and other players, and a final sense of triumph. Most of this is no news to educationalists, but there’s a quote I really love: “One of the most profound transformations we can learn from games is how to turn the sense that someone has ‘failed’ into the sense that they ‘haven’t succeeded yet.” (Tom Chatfield, British journalist and author)

That quote is a guide to how to find that sweet spot.

Providing motivation, of course, as we all know, is crucial. Where’s the relevance? Traditionally, it may have been enough to simply tell students that they needed to know something, and they’d believe you. But it’s not just that students have become cynical and less respectful (!) — the fact is, they have good reason to question whether traditional content and traditional strategies have any relevance to what they need to know.

Here’s a lovely example of the importance of motivation and relevance. In India Bollywood musicals are madly popular. For nine years, these movies have had karaoke-style subtitles. The first state to broadcast the subtitles was Gujarat. Because viewers were so keen to sing along, they paid attention to these captions, often copying them out to learn. As a consequence, literacy has improved. Newspaper reading in one Gujarat village has gone up by more than 50% in the last decade; women, who can now read bus schedules themselves, have become more mobile, and more children are opting to stay in school. Viewers in India have shown reading improvement after watching just eight hours of subtitled programming over six months.

This has apparently worked in more literate nations as well. Finland (and we all know how well it scores in education rankings) attributes much of its educational success to captions. For several decades now, Finland has chosen to subtitle its foreign language television programs (in Finnish) instead of dubbing over them. And Finnish high school students read better than students from European countries that dub their TV programs, and are more proficient at English.

But songs, it seems, are better for this than dialog.

Of course this strategy is only useful at a certain stage — when learners have basic skills, but are having trouble moving beyond.

This is the point, isn’t it? Different situations (a term encompassing the learners, their prior knowledge, and their goals, as well as the content and its context) require different strategies. For example, I recently read a discussion on Education Week prompted by a teacher being forced by his/her institution to use PowerPoint in a class for ESL students to improve their English speaking skills.

Powerpoint slides can be very effective, but far too many aren’t. Similarly, lab sessions can be true learning experiences, or simply “paint-by-numbers” events for which the result is known. Lectures can be a complete waste of time, or true learning experiences.

Consider marathon oral readings of famous texts. A recent article on Inside Higher Ed said that such “events help convey messages, engage students, and foster community on their campuses in ways that reading alone cannot do”. And there was a nice quote from a student: "Until you hear another student read it in his or her own voice, you don't really understand the vast possibilities for interpretation."

What’s the difference between this and a lecture? Well, in one sense none. Both depend on delivery and presentation. I’ve been to some very engaging and inspirational lectures, and some readings can be flat and uninspiring. But the critical difference is that one is literature (a story) and the other is expositional. To make instructional text engaging, you have to work a lot harder. And this is true regardless of the mode of delivery — lectures and textbooks are the oral and written variants of linear exposition.

Is it fair to dismiss a strategy just because some people perform it badly? Is it smart to require a strategy because in some circumstances it is better than another?

We need a better understanding of the situations in which different strategies are effective, and the different variables that govern when they are effective. And we need more flexibility in delivery.

Which brings us to computer learning, which I’ll discuss in the next post.

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