Tag Archives: Richard Feynman

Lectures aren’t as bad as people say

5 Jan
I’ve been teaching in higher education for over ten years, and in that period the one point I’ve seen made about teaching more than any other is that lectures are not a good means of teaching. Indeed, the phrase ‘ chalk and talk’ has almost become a synonym for ‘poor teaching’. For someone like myself who is interested in good teaching it is therefore more than a little ironic that my teaching now consists entirely of lectures delivered to 200+ students at a time.
This paradox came to mind recently when I read an excellent article in praise of lectures, that chimed with many of my opinions. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best examples of ‘teaching’ that one sees are invariably ‘lectures’, from the Xmas Lecture Series of the Royal Institution to Richard Feynman’s celebrated lectures on Physics. Indeed, even in the world of television, work from documentary makers like Ken Burns or naturalists like David Attenborough are essentially just very well-illustrated lectures. Against this it seems very odd that educationists will advocate almost any teaching method above lectures.
It’s interesting to contemplate how we might have arrived at this paradoxical situation. My own view is that when educationists talk about lectures being the worst way of ‘teaching’ in higher education what they are actually talking about are ‘poor lectures’. Anyone who has spent any time in higher education will know the sense of depression that sets in when you are trapped in a classroom with a lecturer who doesn’t seem interested in the material, is reading reams of text direct from the Powerpoint slides and is barely audible as they fail to use microphones correctly.
Now, or course I’m not saying that there aren’t teaching situations where a small-group tutorial wouldn’t be a much better solution than 200+ lecture, but I am saying that the ‘anything but lectures’ approach is just ridiculous. So one of my new years resolutions for 2014 is to interrupt anyone who ‘chalk and talk’ is bad, and ask them for their evidence.

What makes for a good university teacher ???

13 May


A few weeks ago I received an award from the students of my institution for ‘Most Innovative Lecturer’, and since then I’ve been thinking about what makes a good university lecture, and whether anyone can do it. I’ve always been of the opinion that what I do isn’t ‘rocket science’, and that with a small amount of instruction most university teachers could deliver engaging lectures.

All these thoughts were bought into focus yesterday as I watched a brilliant BBC documentary celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman. I suspect that if you’re reading this Feynman will need no introduction, so I limit myself to saying that he was unusually a genius both in his chosen discipline of physics and in teaching. Watching clips from the Feynman lectures again made me realise that ‘innovation’ isn’t what good teaching is about at all, after all Feynman gets by with chalk and a blackboard. The whole trust of the documentary was that what made Feynman a great teacher came from within him, it was simply the desire to pass on the spirit of inquiry to others and it seemed like this personality trait had been fostered by his own father.

What’s intriguing here is that if you look at how universities go about trying to improve the quality of teaching it’s all about technique. It’s course on ‘How to use PowerPoint’ or ‘How to work with Moodle’. In reality, I now wonder whether much of this is worthwhile. If someone isn’t motivated to teach no amount of instruction is going to make them an engaging lecturer. British institutions have a particular issue, in that staff receive ‘tenure’ very early in their career and subsequent career progression is focused much more of research than teaching, thus UK university teachers have little external incentive to produce engaging lectures. Of course, for those with an internal motivation to be engaging (like Feynman had) none of this matters.

So, where does all that leave my initial thought about engaging lectures not being ‘rocket science’. Well, I still think that most university lecturers could deliver engaging lectures. However, the question now seems like ‘do they want to’ ? I end up with a question for university managers, how do we provide external motivation for those who don’t have Feynman’s internal desire to explain ???

As ever, please leave comments below, I’d love to know what people think

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