The return of the lecture
Of course, it has not gone away. It is still the most used of all teaching methodologies in higher education and theological education. Teachers in these situations even tend to be called lecturers. It is financially important. If one lecturer teaches thirty students, the college collects thirty sets of fees and only has to pay out one salary.
However, most of us know that the lecture has got a bad name. Important studies such as that of Bligh in 2002 find it to be as effective in transmitting information, but less effective than any other form of teaching in just about every other area of teaching and learning. Internet based delivery of courses (MOOCs aside) seems to show the lecture to be irrelevant and current areas of educational theory such as constructivism and reflective practice which discuss how students learn, structure and use their learning, generally do not rate the lecture very highly.
Those who defend the lecture (apart from accountants) often talk about how it enables the lecturer’s enthusiasm for the subject to be conveyed to the students and how the lecturer can control the level and content to make it most suitable for the students. These are important positives, but the greatest justification for the lecture is usually missed.
The lecture creates the community of learning.
Week by week (or intensively over maybe ten days), the students and the teacher live together in the same room and spend time learning together. The best classes I have ever taught have been when that sense of community has been created. When we say that it “worked”, this is usually what we mean. But what sort of community? It is a community that is led by the teacher, but can we picture its nature? Once we ask this question, we have a number of surprising pictures available to us.
What about a TV series? These are community activities. They are what is happening with a group of people in some sort of community relationship. They suck you in, they make you look forward to “participation” again next week at the same time, they have drama and emotion.
Or a party? We go there with friends to enjoy ourselves, we talk and learn a lot from each other. We also get to make new friends as friends introduce their friends to us. Those new friends can sometimes then become friends and companions for life. I got to know Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Gustavo Guttierez and Henri Nouwen that way.
Or perhaps a corporate work space? No-one is simply a passive observer here, but a needed part of the community effort. People come together to make things happen, projects are progressed, people change and grow in interaction with others.
Or a form of church? We come together each accepting the other, each bringing a gift, where there is a person with a special gift of teaching but above all where learning is facilitated by the Spirit and the presence of God – where two or three are gathered in his name in community.
So, the use of the concept of the lecture as community not only breaks open the understanding of a good lecture by offering us new parallels, it gives us space to describe it (at least in theological education) in Christian terms and a Christian ontology.
The interesting thing about this perspective is that it seems to demand what good teachers and thoughtful students have always wanted from lectures – a real relationship between teacher and student, and student and student; interaction and activity together; question answering, problem solving and application; humour, the enjoyment of life together and truth mediated through genuine personality.
The first and greatest task of the lecturer is not to convey information, it is to create the community of the classroom.
 Bligh, D, “What’s the Good of Lectures?” (Intellect, Exeter: 2002).