Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tweckling, iconoclasm and lecturing as a normative discourse: reflections on two ALT-C keynotes

When I discovered what the topic of Donald Clark’s ALT-C keynote was I was pretty interested. ‘Don’t Lecture Me’ augured well, I thought, because challenging the orthodoxy of lecturing is a matter dear to my heart. But I honestly thought that this was going to be a classic example of preaching to the proverbial choir. Surely, I thought, settling into their seats in the auditorium were people, like me, who had read Bligh’s What’s the Use of Lectures? and Gibb’s ‘Twenty Terrible Reasons For Lecturing’ and were all going to enjoy the ride Clark was about to take us on. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Before long, the twitter back channel started to fill with defensive and at times aggressive reactions to the points he was making. And these weren’t particularly radical points. These were points that have been made countless times before by countless other scholars in countless other settings over countless years. And I don’t say this out of disrespect for Clark’s scholarship. Clearly, it all still needs to be said. Again!

There were tweets attacking Clark for using a lecture to denounce lecturing, attacking him for critiquing the lecturers rather than the lecture, picking on physicists and his swearing and there were many more being just plain rude. I won’t counter these here as he’s done a perfectly good job of doing that himself in his blog and, as an old friend of mine would say, ‘he’s big enough to look after himself’.

What really struck me was that even here, at a teaching and learning technology conference, how many apparently well-informed, innovative thinkers about teaching and learning practice were defending the lecture as a pedagogic technique. Astonishingly, when I sent a tweet about this shock I was feeling I received two @ replies that, you guessed it, defended the lecture.

In his keynote Clark discussed lecturing as operating as a default. I would challenge him on this and argue that it is probably better understood as a normative discourse. A default is something to which things automatically reset or return. While I think this is true – I think there is more going on than this. I think lecturing operates, within HE, as a normative discourse. A normative discourse is a way of thinking and talking about something whereby it is understood to be true that something is normal. Heterosexuality is usually understood to operate as a normative discourse for instance – and this assumption is often referred to as heteronormativity. Similarly – in HE it is widely considered to be true that lecturing is normal. This is evident in our job titles, our institutional architecture, our workload models, our quality assurance strategies, our timetabling software and countless other systems and principles that define and demarcate our working lives.

One of the things about normative discourses is that they are really hard to talk against or to critique. Because something is seen as normal, saying anything which is critical of it can be taken personally by those who subscribe to this ‘truth’. That was what happened at the ALT-C keynote. While Clark was clearly critiquing the lecture as a pedagogical strategy, many people in the room who were engaging with the twitter back channel (and therefore probably many others who weren’t) clearly took his critique personally – as being an attack on them as lecturers and as people who had been lectured themselves as undergraduates.

Speaking out against the lecture is hard. Bligh, for instance, spends the first chapter of his book arguing why lecturing is not a great pedagogical strategy and then spends the rest of the book suggesting ways we could do it better. Gibbs’ ‘Twenty Terrible Reasons For Lecturing’ is written explicitly in response to the defences lecturers routinely offer of the lecture (and by extension of themselves). I hear these defences all too frequently myself when I muster the courage to challenge the normative discourse and Gibbs’ article comes in really handy at these moments.

In effect, speaking out against lecturing is hard because it amounts to a kind of iconclasm – literally icon smashing. As Clark’s subsequent blog post made clear, he is big enough to look after himself. I still can’t help thinking he must have felt at least a little bruised by the experience. Which leaves me wondering about those without his confidence and self-employed status. And this is precisely how normative discourses maintain and protect themselves – it becomes too risky and too scary to speak out against them so people choose not to and the ‘truth’ of the normalcy gets to sail on calmly.

What really drilled the point home to me were the tweets which saw the second keynote delivered by Dr Sugata Mitra as incontrovertible evidence that the lecture isn’t dead. While I agree with them all that it was a fantastic example of a brilliant, inspiring, spell-binding lecture, so was Clark’s. (A key point that Gibbs makes very effectively is that inspiring lectures aren’t in and of themselves evidence of the effectiveness of lecturing as a pedagogical strategy). What these tweeters failed to see, however, was that Mitra, like Clark was arguing persuasively and passionately about the ineffectiveness of teacher-centred learning strategies – at the core of which is lecturing. At one point he said something to the effect that students learn better when teachers aren’t even in the room! In essence, Mitra’s critique of lecturing was as powerful and passionate (albeit with fewer swear words) thank Clark’s but he escaped without the at times brutal tweckling simply because he wasn’t being so directly and overtly iconoclastic.

To view to the keynotes at the ALT-C YouTube channel, go here:

Donald Clark's 'Don't Lecture Me'

Sugata Mitra's 'The Hole in the Wall: Self Organising Systems'

To view them with the twitter backchannel as subtitles, (with thanks to Martin Hawksey for pointing these out) go here:

Donald Clark's 'Don't Lecture Me'

Sugata Mitra's 'The Hole in the Wall: Self-Organising Systems'