This piece is being published to coincide in real time with Adeline Koh’s keynote at Illiads 2015.
On a walk last week, my husband asked me what I was going to talk about for the keynote that I’m giving today. I responded that I wasn’t sure yet, but I was considering whether I could fit an activity or two in so that I wouldn’t be droning on at my audience for an hour. His response: “I wouldn’t do that. They are inviting you to show off your expertise. Doing activities would be a cop-out.”
In some ways, my husband was correct: keynotes have an expected format, and that format is to lecture to — or at — one’s audience, to showcase one’s supposed brilliance. Yet everyone who has given serious thought to the mechanics of traditional face-to-face pedagogy knows that the lecture format can be highly problematic. Lectures are non-interactive, meaning that there is little way for lecturers to know whether they are getting across what they intended. Indeed, lectures have sometimes been called the “spray and pray” method: you scatter the seeds of your own knowledge in the hopes that they will actually take root in the audience. Jared Stein notes that this is a “lossy” form of education, using computing terminology to call attention to the great loss of information that occurs during transmission from speaker to learner. Lectures, he says can implicitly “encourage students’ passive acceptance of concepts, or worse, fail to change pre-existing misunderstandings by not directly challenging biases or interpretations.” Indeed, according to a recent study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, passive forms of instruction result in failure rates 55 percent higher than those of active forms of instruction. All this indicates that activities are not cop-outs but actually a good presentation strategy and good pedagogy.