The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the only way lectures make sense is if the material can’t be found in journals, books or videos yet, or if the speaker is so compelling that s/he inspires and challenges the audience in a way that can’t be done by a written piece, or perhaps if one simply wanted to see and hear a great author in person.
But for most subjects, I think students would learn best if they simply read the source materials – going through each page according to their own pace and level, rereading the portions that are not yet clear, jumping to other portions to clarify certain words or ideas, and reworking the concepts in their mind until these concepts become familiar and their very own.
In contrast, you can’t rewind lecturers. Well, maybe you can ask them – once or twice – to repeat a sentence or go over a concept once more, or answer a particularly nagging question in your mind. But if there are 30 (60?) of you in the class, each one asking for clarification about different portions of the lecture, it obviously won’t work.
It would even be better if the lecturer simply kept quiet and asked the students to read the chapter or specific pages covered by the lecture, and simply made him/herself available for clarificatory questions.
In fact, given the current level of video technology, it would now make sense to simply record each lecture beforehand and give students a CD copy each to view, absorb and study at their own pace and leisure. Over time, these recorded lectures can be edited, improved, supplemented with graphics and visual aids, and updated, so that they keep getting better with time. Then, too, the best lectures can be made available to thousands, not just one class.
There is one problem with reading (or viewing lectures, even if you could rewind them). If you’re stuck with an unanswered question in your mind, particularly if the answer is essential to understanding the rest of the material, then you reach a dead-end. If you can’t find the answer yourself through further reading, you are unable to move forward.
The best way out is then to ask someone else. This, I think, is the teacher’s role – to respond to students’ questions and to guide them through difficult portions of the subject. By interacting with students, studying their questions, and analyzing their mistakes in written exercises, the teacher can focus on the obstacles that prevent or delay the students’ understanding, clear these obstacles away, and set students off on their own to a successful learning experience. Along the way, students will pick up learning skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
The teacher’s other role – unfortunately, few teachers fulfill this role – is to inspire and motivate their students, to nurture and enhance further the student’s innate love for learning.
I have been talking about lectures. Obviously, laboratory, shop or field work is necessary to complement the students’ book learning. More on that later.