The dominant model of education is in turmoil. Students demand fewer courses, less reading and writing assignments. Employers say graduates are not work ready. Parents are staggered by the rising cost of education.
Grave concerns on the quality of college graduates abound. Employers are unanimous in their condescending view of recent graduates. In their opinion graduates can’t apply knowledge, lack critical thinking and communication skills. Recent studies show that even after four years in college nearly 40 per cent of students in the US failed to improve test scores in critical thinking.
Indignation about higher education derives from the perception that the model of delivery – the classroom and the lecture – is antiquated. The popular view is that disruption in education is overdue. The cry everywhere is abolish lectures, abolish classrooms. Learning must not be constrained by professorial enclaves called subjects or disciplines that inhabit kingdoms called departments.
Scholars in higher education reform believe the combination lectures and classrooms stifles understanding and fails to spark creativity; the two essential ingredients for deep and enduring learning. This band of education innovators argue that technology now enables novel approaches like the flipped classroom where students can through the internet learn in the quiet of their homes and engage in more active learning by doing in the classroom.
The ranks of professors who believe that university teaching needs fundamental reform are growing. Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman of Stanford recently issued a plea to educators to stop lecturing. Meta analysis of over 200 studies reveals that lecturing increased failure rates by 55 per cent. Conversely, interactive or active learning methods resulted in a 36 per cent drop in failure rates.
But is the lecture model and the traditional classroom really the problem? The problem in my view is not the lecture. The lecturer is the problem. Most academics are horrible teachers, movingly inarticulate. Moreover, the reckless proliferation of universities, public and private, has unleashed an unrelenting gust of intellectually mediocre professors upon college students. They are super depressing to listen to or chat with even if the subject is the weather or Nairobi’s incessant traffic gridlock.
I remember as a young undergraduate saying to a professor during a lecture that I was waiting for him to lay out an argument of his own. This professor understood a lecture as event during which dictated his notes to students. As you can imagine, I paid dearly for my indiscretion.
Professors must be good teachers and public speakers period. The good news is that oratory can be learned. A combination of academic rigor, eloquence and passionate delivery endows a lecture with inalienable and remarkable power. A lecture delivered with wit motivates active learning and critical listening while modeling the sublime art of reasoned argument.
Both flipped classroom and active learning in small groups are not novel. Novelty will come through incentives for scholarship in teaching. And yes, excellent lectures can engage and inspire learners to think critically and to innovate.