Beyond “what works” pedagogy; In defence of the scholarly lecture

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Beyond “what works” pedagogy; In defence of the scholarly lecture

By Nina Hood

Last week The Education Hub hosted a Big Ideas webinar, in which Professors John Morgan (The University of Auckland) and David Lambert (Institute of Education, UCL) discussed the topic of knowledge and curriculum. The Big Ideas webinar series is deliberately designed to explore complex and often controversial ideas in education, and to encourage deeper thinking and further conversation about important issues and topics impacting education in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world.

Following the webinar, we sent out a follow up survey to gauge people’s responses to the ideas presented. One respondent wrote that they were disappointed that the webinar did not model good pedagogical practice for online learning, did not feature an engaging PowerPoint presentation, and that the speakers seemed to be discussing the topic with each other rather than the audience.

At the Education Hub, we always take feedback we receive seriously. And this feedback was no different; not least because what was written was true. The webinar did not follow “effective” pedagogical practices for online learning. The PowerPoint was visually a hot mess (but the content and quotes featured in it were relevant and thought provoking). And the speakers did engage with each other in a scholarly conversation, and did not actively involve the audience until the end. But, for me at least, this did not diminish the experience. Quite the contrary. I have not stopped thinking about the content of this webinar.

It reminded me of why the lecture, when done well, is such a powerful learning experience. Not the type of lecture that many experience as a routine part of their undergraduate education. But the scholarly, public lecture, a central part of the English academic model, which seeks to explore intellectually complex and challenging ideas. It brings together thinking on a topic, not with the explicit purpose to lecture or teach others but rather to try out new ideas (which the speakers were doing in this case), and to give the audience the opportunity to think with them. John and David weren’t trying to tell us what to think or what to do or how to do it. They weren’t doing the intellectual lifting for us. They were setting the scene to enable each participant to do that intellectual exploration themselves. In many ways, they were putting the agency and onus back onto the audience. And for me, it worked.

The concept of the lecture as a learning experience has been in decline for a while. It is much maligned in contemporary education circles. It doesn’t match what the [what works] literature tells us about what makes an effective learning experience or lesson. But it would be wrong to suggest that a good lecture doesn’t hold immense value and learning potential. The chance to get lost in an academic debate, to listen to and engage with challenging ideas, and to be exposed to new perspectives for an hour, and then to ruminate and return to those ideas in the hours and days afterwards, is magical.

For me, the value of last week’s webinar was not in the moment, it was in the thinking and discussion that it has subsequently stimulated. And admittedly, there was one part, in the middle, where I felt it was a bit slow, and I could feel my attention drifting. But, the speakers pulled me back, and there were many places where I wish we could have dwelled for longer and delved deeper. As Professor John Morgan remarked in a follow-up email, the webinar ended just as the big questions were being raised.

One survey respondent adroitly noted, “A Big Ideas webinar should not be expected to translate quickly and directly into changed practice. Some ideas and their implications have value because they broaden our horizon, and place our practices in context. I am still processing the interesting and credible ideas in yesterday’s webinar.”.

In the quest for educational outcomes, the quantification of learning, and increased efficiency and efficacy of teaching practice, we are at risk of never taking the time to step back and explore the ideas that are at the heart of education but do not immediately translate into day-to-day practice. That doesn’t mean, in the case of curriculum, that we never seek to move from theory into practice. But rather, if we don’t first get a good grasp on the ideas that inform different positions, approaches, and ideas, we run the risk of spinning wheels rather than realising real impact or change.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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