Sit Down and Shut Up – The Restrictive Nature of Classrooms and Lectures

An insightful post from one of my students on the value of lectures. Nice to know that there are students who question the current prevalence of lectures, and not just the likes of you and I.

James Redmond's Psych Blog

Since the beginning of my educational life, I have always been taught using a lecture style format and a strict no talking (without permission) policy. I would enter the classroom where I would take a seat and wait for my name to be called out. Once the register has been taken, I was not allowed to talk or even think about anything else for around five hours in a day. My attention had to be solely on the teacher and I was shouted at if I did anything else. This ritual of sitting on my butt in silence for five hours a day continued for 14 years of my life, up until I came to university, where for the first time I was taught using more effective methods and encouraged to learn independently. I am still given lectures for some of my modules in university, but luckily some of my…

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The Value of Learning

Learning is natural. We begin to learn in the womb. The wonderment of  childhood in largely because of the excitement that comes with learning. What value do we put on learning?

In a world where we are facing problems of epic proportions (climate change, ageing populations, dysfunctional democracy, energy supply) we need to harness the talent of human creativity. I am, at heart, an optimist, (although the evidence around me would suggest I am starry eyed) and I believe that we  can learn how to deal with the monumental problems that face us.

As an educator, I don’t believe that we are anywhere close to harnessing the power of the social learning mind. Creativity, critical thinking and analysis, and creative applications of thinking define the milestones of human progress. We live in an age when more people receive an education than ever before, and we have reaped the massive benefits that have arisen because of the massification of education at all age levels. However, we have now found ourselves in a state of defending the status quo because it has become one of the largest and most powerful cultural institutions in the world. We didn’t get where we are by refusing to change, we are here because a few were willing to risk everything to change the world with new and outlandish ideas.

We need to do this again, and one of the most fundamental changes that is needed is the revaluation of learning.

Although there are arguments that education is already too expensive, I believe that in order to really harness the potential of the social learning mind, the value of learning has to be increased. Not just increased, but really increased.

In much of the world, classrooms of children, teenagers and (young) adults in formal learning environments are large. As a result, much of our energies have been focused on making teaching more efficient, forcing conformity, and putting out a uniform product. How do we process so many minds at once when we are all unique.

If we look at our society today, while we strive for ever greater efficiencies in teaching, we find that fewer and fewer of our graduates find meaningful employment. Too much of what we do in our modern society can, and is, being replaced by mechanisms and algorithms. Machines and technology are doing many of the jobs we have relied on, in the past, to provide meaningful employment to millions. We are in a state of social upheaval, with our values anchored in a mercantilist past. A trader is worth a million times more than a teacher. Even though making and trading can (and has been – to a large extent) automated.

I would say that teaching can’t and shouldn’t be automated. Certainly, parts of education can be automated, but real learning of complex ideas, complex information, and complex skills are still learned in a face to face, supportive environment with very low student/teacher ratios (think PhD learning). Shaping and moulding an individual mind to reach its full potential is a customised process that can’t be achieved using factory methods.

As a society, why don’t we revalue learning. Would there need to be endless measurement if a teacher of six year olds had only five children to work with? If a middle-school teacher could really inspire a handful of young teenagers to love the beautiful simplicity of math (if that’s what the teens found interesting)? How enjoyable would the teaching and learning experience be in higher education if a teacher (wouldn’t be lecturers in this world) worked with a few eager students to help them learn as opposed to setting continuous memorisation exercises for the hundreds.

Think of the thrill of learning that has occurred in the cMOOCs as small groups of individuals (a lot of small groups) focus on learning and supporting each other in understanding complex ideas?

If we were to revalue learning, we could provide meaningful careers for millions, harness the power of human thinking and creativity, and I believe we could actually come up with solutions to the world’s most challenging problems.


How have we made something as exhilarating as learning, as oppressive as education?

Evidence & HE

One of the real challenges I face in trying to convince people that there are better ways to approach education is an attitude towards evidence that I don’t understand. I was talking to one educator about the evidence from psychology about how to motivate students to engage in their academic studies. Her response puzzled me, but it is something I have heard before and since. She said: that’s all right if you believe in that kind of stuff. When I asked about the stuff she was referring to, she said she was referring to research, as (according to her) we all know, researchers can find any outcome that fits their agenda.

Needless to say, that was the most extreme example of the dismissal of evidence, but certainly not a rare one.

In my research methods class, when I used to talk to the first year students about rational thinking and evidence, I used an audience response system to poll the students about various aspects of their understanding. One of the questions I used to ask was:

Should the major decisions in our society be based on (a) solid evidence gathered using the best research methods available, or (b) feelings, beliefs and just “knowing” when something should be a certain way?

As it was during a lecture on rational decision making, of course I would get 98% responding with “a” as the appropriate response.

I then showed the following slide.


During this slide, I explained to the students that a placebo-controlled randomised study is about as good as it gets in the clinical scientific world, and that the homeopathic society was saying that the best science couldn’t measure the effects of homeopathic medicine. I then repeated the question:

Should the major decisions in our society be based on (a) solid evidence gathered using the best research methods available, or (b) feelings, beliefs and just “knowing” when something should be a certain way?

To my surprise (the first year I did this) those responding with “a” dropped to about 55%. These are students who enrolled  in University to obtain a BSc in psychology from one of the five top psychological research departments in the UK. Suddenly, there was something they wanted to believe in, and the idea of using science to answer a question wasn’t that important to them.

I have always hoped that by the time the students graduated with their degrees, they would, once again put science and evidence back into a premier place for answering questions in about the world. And yet, I have my doubts.

The Right Answer

Roger Shank wrote something last week that I think is worth looking at:

Math and science are meant to teach thinking (or so it is said). They could actually teach thinking of course, but when the scientific questions are given to you, and the right answers are taught to you, science ceases to be about observation, experimentation, hypothesis creation, and reasoning from evidence, and becomes memorization to get good scores on multiple choice tests.

Does constantly coming up with the right answer mean that we don’t learn to think. I can expect individuals who are uneducated to undervalue the power of rational thinking and the scientific method; evidence, to the uninitiated, is nothing better than opinion. But an education, at the very core, should about thinking, rational thinking, and critical evaluation of evidence. If a person has been trained to understand the process and rigour that accompanies the proper application of the scientific method, and the strength of properly obtained evidence,  how can scientific findings be something that you can simply dismiss as though they were nothing more than opinions.

Scientific discovery has laid the foundation for much of what we enjoy in the world today. However, conservative influences in society, just as in the past, use whatever power is at their disposal to ensure that science only supports the worldview that is already established. Delivering well educated, thinking individuals is needed to counterbalance the antiscientific influence that has arisen in recent years. Unfortunately, well educated has come to mean great memorisation.

I would suggest that our obsession with content and getting the right answer has meant that rational thinking has become an optional extra in HE.


How have we made something as exhilarating as learning as oppressive as education?

Donald Clark’s TEDx Talk

I love it (thanks Miguel)!

Those of you who read my blog know that I regularly refer to Donald. He refers to so much that is dear to my heart in this talk – great job. The only thing I have to disagree with is that there are still a few of us trying – ever so hard – to change education from within.


How have we made something as exhilarating as learning as oppressive as education?