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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.


6 comments:

Paul Miller said...

The internet gives us an endless supply of "great" lectures by elite professors. Ted.com and youtube along could keep even the most enthusiastic lecture goer occupied til death. Load up on fleeting facts, who knows when you may be a contestant on Jeopardy.

Tim said...

We lecture for the same reason we Blog.... It feels good to be listened to!! It's good for our ego.......or not! :-)

Tereza Crump said...

I was reading your posts from Nov 2014 and then had to swap computers. I typed your blog's name and found myself reading this post about my native country Brazil. Interesting. Anyway... I think lectures are good to spark interest and learn some quick info. I do believe like you that one of the best ways to learn is conversations. I homeschool my 4 children and they talk ALL the time. We probably have about 1-2 hours of desk work and then they pursue their own interests. Of course, they have to share their discoveries and process their learning which happens throughout daily conversations. I can tell you that at the end of the day, I am worn out. :P Thank you for sharing your insights. Still reading through your blog.

Joy said...

Roger, I'm loving your blog, found it via Generation Cedar. Would you PLEASE put a subscription form in so that I can see when you post via email? Thanks so much. :)

Roger Schank said...

best way to know about new blog posts by me is through twitter (@rogerschank)

lei Wang said...

I feel when I am subscribing the online courses instead of studying off line, I want to make sure that I know enough of the subject, not missing any important basics. A well defined online course has a clear path about that. Another reason for me to do online course is that I want to get some insight and different ways of looking the same subject from the lecturers. I think lectures with actual insight will still be very helpful.