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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In education, the goal should not be test scores but happiness

  1. I did an interview in Spain about 5 years ago which has been tweeted all over the Spanish speaking world the last two weeks.
So I thought I would post it in English. (To do that I had to edit Google Translate's output and try to guess what I was saying.

Anyhow I thought this would be fun to post.

The Spanish web site that posted it is:

"In education, the goal should not be test scores but happiness," Roger Schank

“We spent half our lives memorizing things we are unable to remember shortly after.” Roger Schank 

That is a waste of time and brain power. And he knows of what he speaks. He has spent 35 years working as a teacher in three of the most prestigious universities in the world. Now he is determined to create new schools that train citizens and not intellectuals, in which students are happy and learn to understand the world in which they live. He offers alternative learning systems from his company Socratic Arts and his nonprofit organization, Engines for Education .

It makes no sense. You know that, right?


The current education system! It is based on many  bad assumptions. One is that memorizing like a parrot is something useful. But it’s not!

For small children this works.

The real reason we are taught to learn by rote is because the school concept was invented at the time of the industrial revolution and at that time the only thing they cared about was training workers for the factories. They were training people to get used to doing the same thing over and over again for many hours a day. They wanted school to be boring and repetitive. They began to teach little kids dull things over and over to ensure getting compliant workers. And that's why we memorize things in school.

But what about multiplication tables?

The only useful thing to memorize are the multiplication tables. Right. Because when you're buying something you might want to know what 8 times 6 is. Now, tell me another thing that it matters to memorize.

The rivers, the capitals of the countries …


Because it is useful.
Oh, no! You believe in the system! [We laugh out loud] Come on! There is not possible reason why you have to learn the names of rivers. Or the capitals. Or the names of kings. Or the names of wars.

We can look at Google

Forget Google. Let's talk about how we would learn such things without school. When I travel somewhere and look at a map. For example, if you go to New York you will have to figure out where it is, how far it is, what things one can do there. Once you have gone, you will remember the trip. You might remember the name of the river, however because it is not relevant to your trip. You can memorize a lot of information about the city, but it is meaningless unless you experience those things. Memories are linked to emotions and experiences. School is the almost the opposite of real education, because real education comes through real experience. Rather than teach the names of the rivers and cities, why not have students take a trip and visit the cities and learn at the actual site?
And what about history?

History is the most useless subject ever created! Let me explain why, because every time I say people get very angry. In America, we say it is very important to know about George Washington. When I ask why, no one knows, but we all know that it is very important. But when you read about George Washington you find that he had 300 slaves, he married a rich woman for her money, and maybe he wasn’t all that heroic. So what are we talking about when we talk about history? Should we skip the real stuff and just stick with “he was the father of our country?”
Many people quote to me the words of George Santayana: "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it". Nice sentence, but nonsense. Consider wars: World War I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan ... still? At school we studied these conflicts. George Bush studied them too, and instead, he took maybe a minute to think about it when he decided to invade Iraq. That worked out real well.   Teaching history in school usually spreads propaganda, typically about how great one’s country is.

And so? What do we have history books in school?

Because it is the way for the government to tell you things that make them look like the good guys. Surely, in Spain you teach that the conquest of South America was positive. Try asking how the Indians in Peru feel about it! In America we are taught, for example, we have never started a war, we have always been good, we've always done best for everyone ... Oh yeah ?!

Now that does not mean I don’t think history is interesting. I think it is. And I think some people should be experts on history, and citizens should know something about their history. But its not all for everybody. It is for people who are intellectuals with deep knowledge, who are able to discern two sides of an issue. Do we really need to understand the role of ancient Rome? Sure it's interesting to many, but if we force all students to learn about them what exactly does that accomplish?

So if we do not teach mathematics, nor history, nor geography ... what do children learn at school?

You want to know what kids could learn at school and how it would be useful?

How to educate children. 

This is a very important issue in yet it seems that nobody really knows what to do or how to do it.  Not so long ago,  kids spent the day with their grandparents, and learned about life from them, but now that doesn’t happen so much. Kids don’t learn about everyday life. Instead of learning about medicine they learn about plant and animal taxonomy. Instead of learning about how drugs work for example, we learn how to balance  chemical equations. Have you learned them in school?

I loved it!

Wonderful! And it served some purpose in your life? Chemistry could help us understand what happens when we take a medication, how our bodies functions. Or business. We learn economic theory in school, not business. And yet, we live in a world ruled by business So why, instead of teaching math, language, literature, history, children, don’t we give teach them about psychological issues, such as how to get along with others; how to raise a child; or how to handle daily economic issues, not the theory, but how to run a business, for example; or how to find a job …

First things first. What should a child learn at 4 or 5 years of age?  

At the moment, I am creating a school for my four year old grandson. And for this, the first thing I did was ask him what he likes to do. I often talk to him on Skype and we do things together, like playing, drawing. So I know that he loves trains and what is interesting is that I can teach reading and writing through them. I can take advantage of any interest of the child to help him learn. So in my school, the kids that age would learn things from trucks, airplanes, cars. They will play with them, draw them, write about them, and read about them, Also I have a granddaughter, but she is still too young to go to school. But when she is old enough, I would also design one for her. First, I would need to find out what she likes.

You will need 30 teachers in each class, one for each child.

We can create interest groups. My grandson could be in a group of 12 children with a teacher. All these children would have agreed that they like trucks for example. Not only will play with trucks, but they can also do other things that interest them, make some music, play football, anything. In another room, there will be another group with other interests and so on. The idea is that not everyone has to do the same stuff, we should be allowed to choose to learn what we want to learn. For example, why isn’t there a course in fashion design in elementary school ? I'm sure the girls would love it. I am proposing offer it, not forcing it on anyone. What children really need to learn when they are young is to get along with peers, to communicate well, to think things through, to read, and to write. And all that we can teach in any context. There is no need to bore children.

Teaching them through practical things will motivate them.
Of course, this is what parents do, for example, when they teach their kids to speak. Parents don’t teach the theory of subjunctive case or tell them that this is an adjective or a verb. They just talk to them, and correct them. When children don’t know a word, they ask what the word means. That's real education. And this is how school should work as well. The current idea of school is outdated, outmoded.

What about general education? There is so much to know. How can school just teach about what we want to know and nothing else?

But what we are doing now does not work. In Spain there is a 30% dropout rate. In the United States, in some places it is as high as 75% !! You cannot get to discuss general education when you have people who can neither read nor write. The first thing is to make school fun. Make them want to go to school. Learning is fun when you are 5 years old, why must learning become boring?

The transmission of culture is one of the things that the government uses asa way of controlling content. I recently spoke with the minister of education in Italy and he told me that Dante must be part of the school curriculum, which is important for the Italians. But is it really? Here in Spain they say you have to read Cervantes. But you have no idea why. The world will go on without him. If you want to read Cervantes, then  do it. Nobody is stopping you. But why does it have to be part of the school curriculum?   WE should try to create interest in reading. But, we cannot force everyone to read the same things. The culture of a country is the culture of a country is a kind of made up anyway. Countries are mixed up places and culture is different for each person. Surely, your vision of Spanish culture is different from another person’s in this country. So it is not important to teach Spanish culture through reading.

You mean to revolutionize the whole system!

From kindergarten through college. The United States has 3,000 universities; I have taught in three of them, the best, supposedly. The problem is that they create people with PhDs who become professors at other universities, who create other PhDs who become professors at other universities and so on. The 3000 universities are teaching exactly the same curriculum. For example, all have copied the curriculum of the Faculty of Mathematics at Yale. The problem is ... who wants a PhD from the University of Utah in Math?  Someone who teach the same curriculum in Montana. Many universities are teaching without purpose. Instead of everyone copying Yale’s math curriculum, different schools could something radical like not require mathematics.  The could teach other things, like how to get a good job. But all schools around the world insist on mathematics. No one remember why. This should stop.  The goal of students should not be grades, but the happiness that comes from an exciting life, incorporating job skills, thinking skills, personal skills, without learning mathematical formulas or literary works that are considered sacred in different cultures. We must teach what matters today and stop teaching things that are useless in the real world. My son in law, for example, got a doctorate in Russian literature. He was at one of the best universities in the country and was an excellent student. But when he said he was going to get a PhD in Russian literature, I thought he was pulling my leg.


What was that going to do for him? Was he going to be able get a job? The only thing you could choose is to be teacher and this isn’t exactly a growing field. He, of course, did not agree with me.  Now he develops online courses for me. He's a smart guy, but the degree was of no value to him.

What did you do in Barcelona?

I collaborated with the University of La Salle. We built an  online MBA program consisting of seven parts, each of a month or six weeks. One of those parts have to do with business ethics, culture. I went to university professors in the US and asked them if they could help us design the ethics course. But they were just going to teach the usual classroom stuff. And we will not do that. Then I remembered I once met a professor of Russian literature.   I knew he was an excellent teacher, so I asked him why he taught Russian literature. Then he told me that he did not teach his students about novels. They read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, to learn about life. The circumstances in which the characters live, human relationships, how they faced problems, love, heartbreak. And this is what he was teaching in class. I suggested to my son-in-law that he write a novel that was on ethical issues in business, in which the characters are faced with ethical dilemmas and the reader has to move in one direction or another.

As in those Follow your adventure book?

That's how you understand ethical dilemmas, by dealing with them.  Humans communicate and learn through stories. At a party, for example, everyone continually exchanges stories. And you can learn a lot each other by exchanging stories.  

It's about learning from experience, yours and others shared at the right time. We must all follow our own adventure. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

AI is not coming any time soon. Let's look at why. A look at babies

This is from last weeks Wall Street Journal: 
Robots are becoming more of a reality in everyday life, and movies have started to overhaul their depiction of them. They’re gentler, friendlier and often better-looking. 
Yet the question remains: Could the smart machines we are inventing rise up against us and obliterate humanity? Or could they become loyal, loving companions and world-saving tools? Two new movies, "Chappie" (March 6) and "Ex Machina" (April 10) will explore artificial intelligence in the coming weeks, with more projects to follow.
 Really? Ok folks. Why AI is harder than you think in easy to understand terms. Watch this video:


That baby can look and imitate. More importantly the baby wants to do that. It "feels the music." Computers may not be able to do that ever. Moreover, they wouldn't want to.

Watch this one:


Two babies that are smarter than any machine will be. They are trying to communicate. They don’t know how yet. But they are practicing and will be learning how over time. They feel that they are communicating. Computers? Not so much.

Watch this one:


It is in Russian and yet we understand it quiet well. Why? Because we are humans and it is a human (and funny) situation. It is the beginning of a child learning how to talk to her dad. The baby is copying what she has seen. She can do that because she is intelligent.  She can teach herself by copying and trying. No computer can do that. Probably no computer will ever do that. Still we should be very afraid of computers taking over and killing us.

One more:


This is learning in action. An intelligent computer would have to start the way a baby starts, have conversations like this one, and learn from its many experiences, like this child will. You can’t just shove all the knowledge in the world into a computer. It is acquisition and learning and thinking and feeling that matters. No knowing facts.

I have worked on AI all my life. I would like to build computers that make our lives easier. That is pretty much what everyone who works in AI would like to do. But movies and people who know nothing about AI keep selling a very different and silly message.

When a computer starts imitating you, then you can start worrying.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Parents: Relax. Your kid will get into college; the question is whether or not to go.

The other day I had dinner with a married couple who were worried about their son. I have these conversations quite frequently although not always at dinner. They were worried about the fact that their son didn't always do what he was supposed to do at school and wasn’t getting great grades. They wanted to know if they should pull him out of his fancy private school and put him in public school hoping that he would get A’s there. 

This sounded like an odd idea. I wondered why they wanted to do that, knowing full well the reason would be that they were worried that he wouldn’t get into college. This conversation must go on all the time in homes across the U.S. Everyone has been sold the idea that their kids must go to college. If a kid is bored with school and finds better things to occupy his time, parents panic.

But, this is about to end.

Today, there was yet another article about why. It was in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is not exactly a radical rag. The article is talking about one particular college and in it there is this:

the college’s administrators say that to achieve long-term financial stability, it needs to expand its enrollment, attracting more students even as competition from other colleges and universities increases. It’s a challenge many of the smallest liberal-arts colleges face.

To put this another way, with 4000 colleges in the U.S. many of them charging high tuition, anyone who can afford  it will find that their kid can get into college.

The real question is whether they should go.

My daughter received a letter from someone with a business that related to hers. It was signed with the name of the woman who wrote it and followed by “Harvard class of 2016.” In other words the writer is a junior at Harvard.

Students in college today are not becoming history or philosophy majors in great numbers. We live in a society that now heavily values entrepreneurship and technical skills. You don’t need to go to college to do either of them. My company (XTOL) has launched certificate programs under the aegis of well known universities which are actually teaching real skills and where having a college degree isn’t necessarily required. This will become more and more common soon. Students will be able to learn what they want to learn without having to obsess in high school about AP tests and SATs. They will not have to go to college, and if they do go they should have a very good reason be going there, learn what they want to learn and leave. (Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did exactly that.)

When I was the Chairman of Computer Science at Yale, one year each Chairman had to address the Freshman about why they should major in their subject. I gave a short speech. I said: “Major in Computer Science. Get a job.”

I was booed. No student at Yale in 1981 was concerned with such practicalities. That year most of our graduates went to work at this startup called Micrcosoft.

Am I recommending that kids shouldn’t go to college? NO. I am simply saying they (and their parents shouldn’t be worrying about this. Colleges will be dying to have them. And, because of that, kids will have the right to blow off high school, which I certainly encourage.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Students: Be very afraid of online degree programs, especially if Pearson had anything to do with them

The other day I read this article in Politico:

No profit left behind
In the high-stakes world of American education, Pearson makes money even when its results don’t measure up.

Anyone who cares about education knows that Pearson is running our school systems through its tests, grading of tests, and nearly anything else it can think of. What I learned in this article is that they are now a major provider of online courses to universities and virtual high schools as well. So, I thought I would take a look at their courses which would of course, be the usual crap mixture of reading and taking tests interrupted by a  lecture.

But, the University of Florida, one place that buys these courses, doesn’t show them to the casual viewer. Instead it provides a promo video which includes the following keywords:

innovative pedagogy
positive game play
social interaction 
promotes pure learning
encourages collaboration
values individual student identity
builds upon student’s strengths and interests
allows for student choice
provides opportunities for reflection

If I didn’t know better, I would have thought they were describing the learn by doing, experiential, mentored simulation courses that me and my team have been building for over a decade. We too have created an innovative pedagogy that encourages (in fact, it requires) collaboration. provides choices, and is big on reflection.

(I don’t know what pure learning is and I don’t know what it means to value student identity, nor do I think positive game play means anything, but, I am getting the idea that Pearson (and Florida) are learning innovative educational vocabulary rather then learning how to build good educational experiences.)

I went on in the U of Florida video. I found that:

Students interact with each other

This, I have found, means that there are student discussion boards and students get to talk to other students just as they do in MOOCs without ever actually involving the faculty in any way. There are “team discussions” which would be fine if they ended up in something shared and engaged with by a teacher, but that doesn't happen. What does happen is the use of “playful promo videos for each module topic,” which seems to mean a funny intro of some sort. There are also short “weekly constitutionals covering foundational topics.” I have no idea what that means. Maybe it means the lectures they assure us they don’t use or the readings they don't mention they will make you read.

They do have an instructor however. 

“The instructor interacts with students via twitter, live tweeting during public events, and sharing content related to course activities.”

Wow. The students get to read tweets from  a professor. Now that is an innovative pedagogy! 

We also find that “the course does not rely on assigned readings and multiple-choice assessments (although all those are featured to a limited degree.)”

I have no idea what that sentence means, but my best guess is that course is nearly all assigned readings and multiple choice tests since that is what Pearson does for a living and that is what Pearson is ramming down the throats of every student online and off line whenever it can do it.

We are told that students complete missions. What is a mission you ask?

“Missions are the experiential component of the course:   They have to interview people, they have to talk to people, they have to do research and they have to build something, whether its something as simple as an essay or maybe even an infographic, a digital timeline, or a video.”   

So students are writing essays as usual, but they can also make graphical or video essays. I wonder who looks at them. The twitter bird?

So this is what I learned: Be very afraid of online courses. They are worse than live courses by a lot, and live courses are usually just boring lectures and tests. 

Students: Be very afraid of these online degree programs  because if Pearson continues to be in charge they won’t be worth the price of printing the diploma. You will have learned nothing except how to argue with other students on a discussion board and take lots of test and complete many “missions.”

The U of Florida may use the vocabulary of experiential learning but accomplishing real live tasks, tasks that someone might one day actually employ you to do, requires the learning and practice of real skills.   But, building courses that simulate actual experiences is expensive, and neither Florida nor Pearson is willing to spend much money on building new things. If you want to see what an experiential learning by doing course should look like, take a look here:

They can steal our vocabulary, but they can’t copy what we do, mostly because they really don’t want to. 

Universities are, for the most part, not concerned with teaching. I also watched the video promo of an online U of Florida Psychology course where the speaker was the instructor. She never said what the online course was like but she did say the word “research” about ten times. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Students: Life isn’t actually a multiple choice test. Have some fun.

I want to consider four separate things I happened upon this week that all lead one glaring conclusion.

The first was this article in the NYTimes:

More College Freshmen Report Having Felt Depressed

“High numbers of students are beginning college having felt depressed and overwhelmed during the previous year, according to an annual survey released on Thursday, reinforcing some experts’ concern about the emotional health of college freshmen.”

This would be very interesting if it weren’t so sad. The article reports that students are stressed out about getting into college and academics and so they socialize less and don’t even have time to watch TV.

To put this another way, we have managed to test these kids to death in the last years, so that their life is all about getting into college by getting good grades. How does this make for well adjusted human beings? Do families even gather around the dinner table and talk anymore? Do they play together after dinner? Or are they all cramming for the next test? What kinds of people are we raising? If you are depressed when you arrive at college, how are you going to even get through college much less life? Where  is the fun?

Well, apparently not in childhood. The next article, also from the Times, makes it clears why. 

Is Your First Grader College Ready?

“Matriculation is years away for the Class of 2030, but the first graders in Kelli Rigo’s class at Johnsonville Elementary School in rural Harnett County, N.C., already have campuses picked out. Three have chosen West Point and one Harvard. In a writing assignment, the children will share their choice and what career they would pursue afterward. The future Harvard applicant wants to be a doctor. She can’t wait to get to Cambridge because “my mom never lets me go anywhere.”

They are talking about college in first grade? Why? “If you focus on Harvard you will get in” is apparently the answer.  But Harvard has a 5.9% acceptance rate. It is probably a lot lower in Harnett County, N.C. So is our goal to get kids to focus on what they will never achieve so that they can be depressed once they get into college, or worse fail to get into college? How can college matter in any way to a six year old? Fun matters. Learning what you want to learn matters. We have made school into a contest that no one can win. All are Harvard graduates so happy and successful? I don’t know. I taught at Yale, where there were a lot of miserable kids and where plenty of the graduates never went on to do all that much. It is all so sad. 

And then I got this, forwarded from my son. It is from his four year old’s teacher:

Hello Families,

In honor of Black History Month, throughout the month of February, each classroom at our school will be highlighting important contributions of African Americans to our country and culture. Our classroom will be studying and celebrating the inspiring artwork of Shinique Smith, a Baltimore native who is renowned for her bright, geometric and abstract paintings, collages and sculptures. We are thrilled to introduce Ms. Smith's work to the children as her artistic interests and philosophies are very similar to our students' artistic tendencies in the classroom art studio: 
1 The children an Ms. Smith share a passion for reusing recyclable materials in their artwork, giving "found treasures" and "loose parts" new life through their creations. 
2 The children and Ms. Smith share a fascination with spirals and mandalas, consistently incorporating circular patterns and designs into their work. 
3 The children and Ms. Smith have been inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock and enjoy utilizing flicking, splattering and dripping techniques on their canvases when using tempera paint.

I am sure that a 4 year old “studying and celebrating” an artist will be something to behold. But, we have a hint of what will happen. Apparently the 4 year olds have been inspired by Jackson Pollack to dribble paint on canvases. Really? No one just plays with paint any more. Now they are all Jackson Pollack. And since they like playing with junk, we find this is now a tribute to an artist that no one has ever heard of.

This wouldn't bother me so much except for what followed.

Extending Learning at Home:
Here are some resources to learn more about Shinique Smith at home. Consider taking some time to look through her work with your child (or the whole family). Spark discussion by asking the following: "What does this remind you of?" "What do you see in this piece?" "What do you think  Shinique was thinking about when she painted/sculpted this?" "What shades of color do you see?" "What shapes do you see?" "How does this piece make you feel?”

The parents are being told that despite the fact that they have spent the whole day working and despite the fact that the kids have been in school all day, what they should do at home in their free time is this: They shouldn’t play with their child or talk to him about what he is thinking, Instead, they should talk about the work of an artist they never heard of and don’t care about to a kid who has no interest in the subject. All this because the teacher wants to rest during class while the kids throw paint?

The good news is that I wont be visiting my grandson or I would talk to him about what the teacher was thinking when she sent home this message or how doing this required art work makes him feel. Fun? That’s out. Let’s make them stress about school 24/7.

But it hasn’t been a bad year for kids in school this year. Why? Because there have been lots of snow days. Kids celebrate when school is cancelled. I wonder why. 
But, apparently not in Indiana:

“Even when schools are closed for snow, students in Delphi, Ind., are expected to log on to their classes from home.
The seniors in Brian Tonsoni's economics class at Delphi Community High School are no strangers to technology — everybody has an Internet-connected laptop or smartphone in front of them in class as they work on business plans.”

Can we please stop and think about what we are doing to our children? They are all in a giant competition but I am not sure for what. I didn’t pay any attention to that competition when I was a student. I graduated #322 in a class of 678. Those numbers never left my mind. I had a C average in college. 

Why? Because I believe in playing and having fun and not in stressing out about school. Still I managed to be the youngest full professor at Yale at the time (at 29). 

Let them have fun, please. School just isn’t that important. I never got into Harvard. (Nor did I apply.) Somehow I managed through life without it. College has become a symbol of achievement in this country. It isn’t. There are 4000 colleges. Anyone can get into college. And anyone can graduate by memorizing answers and passing tests. 

Life isn’t actually a multiple choice test.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Why do we give lectures? Why does anyone attend them?

I found myself in the unusual position (for me anyway) of being a tourist in Brazil about a month ago.  For various reasons, I was on boats, and busses, and other vehicles, on which I found myself being lectured at. 

This was a bit ironic since as my readers know, I hate lectures. It is also ironic, because, I am a frequent lecturer at meetings of one sort or another.

I found myself wondering why people love to give lectures so much, and why I seemed to be the only one irritated by having to listen to them. (One was given beneath a tree, so I walked away, but no one else did, and one was during a walking tour of a winery which I left, but again no one else did.) Now, I understand why no one left the busses or the boats, but I certainly wanted to. On one boat ride the man giving the lecture (which I had thought was just a trip around the harbor) mentioned at least 8 times that there were (fill in the number) states that comprise Brazil. I had no idea why he was telling us this, and, obviously, I have no idea what the number is, (I am guessing between 5 and 50). I don’t care any more now than I did then.

My question is: why was he telling us this fact once, much less 8 different times?

There is something about lectures that is fascinating to me because while I hate them, I love giving them. In fact, it seems like most lecturers love giving them, so my question is why anyone listens.

As a professor (but one who did not lecture) I understand that students are there because they have to be and for the most part they aren’t listening much either. But, I have noticed that most people will not admit this about themselves. When I ask people to try and remember a lecture they heard, they usually say they can and then say a sentence or two about one they happen to recall. But the average educated person has heard hundreds of lectures and they usually cannot even remember what the subjects were or whom the speakers were after a while.

So my question remains. People do voluntarily submit themselves to this and they do think they learned something. Why do they do it?

So here are my best guesses as to why we give lectures and why people seem to want to attend them.

5 reasons why people give lectures

  1. Everyone is looking at the lecturer and the lecturer is performing. People love performing in front of an audience.
  2. A lecturer feels as if he or she is the smartest person in the room while lecturing. Everyone is paying rapt attention (they think), so they must be very smart and very important. People like being the smartest person in the room. Even the boat guy felt he knew more about Brazil then anyone else on the boat and so he was sure he must be very wise indeed.
  3. The lecturer feels that he or she is saving time. If the lecturer can convey lots of information in an hour then  think of the time the audience and the lecturer are saving by putting everything in one neat place.
  4. The lecturer is also saving money. Instead of having a conversation with each member or the audience. He or she can talk to everyone at once. This makes university education very cost effective and does the same for corporate training. One person and five hundred listeners makes great economic sense.
  5. A lecturer, not this one of course, believes that facts are the currency of education. The more facts that he or she can provide, the better off everyone’s life will be. If he or she could only talk faster, think how many more facts could be provided. The providing of facts must be thought of as being very important, even if one of those facts is the number of states in Brazil.

Why do people listen to lectures?

5 reasons why people listen to lectures

  1. Everyone likes watching a performance. People listen to the State of the Union address to see the performance.  People attend a keynote lecture at a meeting to see the performance. After more than 40 years of giving them, I have come to believe that most people haven’t much of an idea what I am talking about and they don’t much care, but they like when I make them laugh and they like when they can come up and talk (or argue) with me later.
  2. People like feeling that they are smarter than the guy who is supposed to be the smartest person in the room. They get to tell their companions that the speaker was a dope, or make fun of something he did. They like feeling superior to the guy who clearly thinks he is the smartest person in the room.
  3. People attend lectures because they are saving time. They get all the stuff they need in one place in one hour and then later they can “explore more deeply” if they want to. This is a nice myth anyway. I am not sure that much “exploring more deeply” actually happens, but it is nice to think that it does.
  4. The attendee is spending money, not saving it. The lecture usually costs something one way or the other. But typically mom and dad, or the government, or the company, is paying for it so they don’t care.
  5. The listener agrees that facts are the currency of education. They like facts. They like them because they can pop them into a conversation at a cocktail party and seem erudite. (My wife heard these same tourist lectures. She is the opposite of me. She got all A’s in school and was actually listening to the boat man. I asked her, while I was writing this, how many states there are in Brazil. She said 21, she guessed. I looked it up after she answered. There are 26. Later when I told her what I was writing, she said “oh its 26.”) But, even the good students don’t really care much about the facts. They may say they are important but they know they are not (unless of course there is a test, in which case they are important for the test.)

So, why do we have lectures? Because we always did. No one wants to change this really. We are all just used to it.

I will end with a quote from Max Sonderby. Max was the TA in the first learn by doing mentored simulation based master’s degree program we rolled out at Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley Campus, in 2002. The year before, he had finished a typical masters degree at Carnegie Mellon using the classroom based approach to education:

I am almost jealous, in a way. I see that they are gaining skills more readily than I gained them in the program which I attended in Pittsburgh on Carnegie Mellon’s campus. They get exposure to things that we just talked about in a lecture hall.

They are actually doing it, implementing, building software, putting designs into practice, whereas we mostly just did homework and talked about it in a lecture hall.

I am jealous in that respect, but its also a lot more work, but that work definitely pays off for the student.

Max was right. Lecturing is a lot less work for everyone. We still have lectures for one main reason. They are the lazy person’s approach to education. Both lectures and listeners agree that neither of them wants to do much work. Real work, and real doing, and real conversation, is all that matters for learning, but education is really not about learning.