Share and discuss this blog

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.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Only poor kids in school; why would someone send their kid to public school if they didn't have to? Mr Obama surely doesn't

This news appeared today (from Washington Post):

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.


Why is this true do you think? Seems simple enough. If you can possibly afford it you wouldn’t even think about sending your kid to public school unless there happened to be a safe school with interesting and fun teachers who did exciting things in a public school nearby. And what are the odds of that?

Thank you Mr Bush, and Mr Obama, and especially Mr Duncan, for making school even worse than it was before by having a policy of constant testing to see how everyone is doing. Under the guise of helping poor people do better you have pushed richer people out of the system. No one wants to use your public schools. Try thinking about that the next time you make more standards that make school a nightmare of test preparation and testing.

The latest salvo was from Mr Obama and his henchman Tom Hanks, trying to convince everyone that it is ok for high school to be an awful experience because you can go to Community College for free and that will solve everything, The New York Time printed that and I am guessing that Obama;s staff wrote it. They will do anything to avoid the obvious conclusion that the schools aren't working.


Here is a simple idea: let people who want to make changes in high schools make them. We can teach job skills, life skills, and make it fun. Or, we could make all the poor people learn algebra, chemistry, and history so they can remain poor having learned nothing of use to them.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Free Community College? How about we fix the high schools Mr. Obama?


The New York Times explained this morning what is behind the free Community College plan of President Obama. In this article they said

The United States built the world’s most successful economy by building its most successful education system. At the heart of that system was the universal high school movement of the early 20th century, which turned the United States into the world’s most educated country. These educated high school graduates — white-collar and blue-collar alike — powered the prosperity of the 20th century. 

That may well be true. The high schools of the early 20th century taught employable skills (in addition to the absurd 1892 academic curriculum still in place.) Eventually all practical high school programs were eliminated from high school because everyone “must go to college.”

Mr. Obama, instead of restoring all the practical things that were taught in high school, wants to make everyone go to college in order to learn employable skills.


The plan would allow anyone admitted to a community college to attend without paying tuition, so long as they enroll in a program meeting certain basic requirements and they remain on track to graduate in three years. Its broad goals are clear: to extend the amount of mass education available, for free, beyond high school — from K-through-12, to K-through-college. “The president thinks this is a moment like when we decided to make high school universal,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Here is a wild suggestion, Mr Obama. Fix high school. Teach practical subjects there. Eliminate the 1892 curriculum. Here are some suggestions for what could be taught in high school today:  

Some Proposed Curricula


  1. Criminal Justice
  2. Sports Management
  3. The Music Business
  4. Music Technology
  5. Law
  6. The Legal Office
  7. Military Readiness
  8. The Fashion Industry
  9. Electrical Engineering
  10. Civil Engineering
  11. Robotics
  12. Computer Engineering
  13. Computer Networking
  14. Homeland Security
  15. Medicine
  16. Nursing
  17. Medical Technology
  18. Construction
  19. Television Production
  20. Real Estate Management
  21. Landscape Architecture
  22. Computer Programming
  23. The Banking Industry
  24. The Investment World
  25. Automobile Design
  26. Aircraft Design
  27. Architecture
  28. Biotechnology Lab 
  29. Film Making
  30. Travel Planning
  31. Financial Management
  32. Accounting
  33. Parenting and child care
  34. Animal care
  35. Zoo Keeper
  36. Urban Transit
  37. Hotel management
  38. Healthcare industry
  39. Food industry
  40. Graphic Arts


Could we do this? Easily. Online education allows teaching anything anywhere. Every kid could choose what they were interested in and then change his or her mind and do something else if they got interested in something else. And there are many more possibilities. Spend our money more wisely Mr. Obama. Build that.


Community college wouldn’t be necessary if the high schools weren't broken.