Two thoughts for the day.

1. Engineering blog comments.
2. One of education's greatest confidence tricks - lectures

1. Engineering blog comments

The comments continue to pour in. Thanks very much. I have placed them all up on my blog site at:

I am grateful for your comments. Thank you for giving up your time to read them.

2. One of education's greatest confidence tricks - lectures

Last week I was put through yet another mind-numbing engineering lecture with numerous powerpoints bouncing around together with all sorts of multimedia wizardry. It proved to be 60 minutes of tedium where I learnt nothing and wished I were elsewhere. And yet we put ourselves through this time and time again. The first 2 minutes were maximum absorption for me (although devoted to some wise-crack to open the presentation on a humorous note); and then the remaining 58 minutes were a dull blur of information. I clearly recall the droning lectures at university on hot afternoons. The despairing lecturers would grind their way through the allotted times. Most of them probably knew that there was no learning occurring but didn't know what else to do. And we have been doing this since Sophocles lectured his Greek students on the beaches of the Mediterranean, 3000 years ago or thereabouts.

So why on earth do we continue with this charade of lectures? Because it is not only a long-standing traditional method, but easy and fairly stress free - it does not require an imagination and needs few resources. There is no equipment to malfunction and the students are less unpredictable and curious as they dwell in the twilight zone of tedium. Furthermore, it is easy to wheel out replicas of this potentially beneficial content again and again despite much of it most assuredly not teaching anyone anything. In essence, I believe lecturing, in the classical sense, shows complete contempt for its audience.

So what should we do about it?

First of all, accept that classic lecturing is a waste - for both the provider and the recipient. No one listens beyond the first few minutes unless, as a teacher, you.....

1. Chat to your audience, as equals, in short bursts of pertinent information – literally a minute in duration. Intersperse these blasts of content with other related activities. DO NOT lecture to them in the usual master-servant manner or with the ‘sage-on-the-stage’ mentality
2. Make it very interactive - get everyone involved - voluntarily if possible; but if not - simply talk to them all as individuals and ensure it is a learning experience which everyone takes part in and learns from - including you the instructor
3. Use exercises where everyone is involved and from which they can learn - for 90% of the presentation. This may entail for example; small groups brainstorming ideas which they then feed back to the larger group or by simply providing exercises to individuals to work through after which feedback is gathered and shared with the whole group.
4. Get them to teach parts of your presentation as well - the best way to learn is to teach the subject
5. PRACTISE your presentation beforehand so that it is interesting and action packed with the whiz bang techniques listed above

Remember of course, that instructing is not a one-way street - it goes both ways. You can actually learn more from your class than they from you. For the simple reason, that they represent vastly more knowledge than you - on a variety of different topics - simply because there are more of them than you.

As my delightful sister-in-law remarked on Sunday morning on the beach, (whilst we were showing her 1 yo daughter how to build her first sandcastle using hands-on instructing with real equipment – sand - and chatting one to one), "All know-how has to be doled out in micro bursts of a few minutes". Every minute you have with your unwilling and bored (unless you are Madonna or equivalent) audience is precious. Treat them like gold and do not abuse your audience by betraying their trust in you.

A few other techniques:
• Something I learnt in another life in the Army, 30 years ago....when you are lecturing; do not do it to the whiteboard - but face the audience and explain the diagrams behind you.
• Stories and anecdotes to illustrate the key points are really valuable and again perk up interest.
• And if you can introduce an emotional roller coaster, when presenting, you will increase the interest factor. Difficult when talking about Ohm's Law or Transformer protection, but you can do this by changing the topic to a story.
• Walk around the classroom, sit down at the back with your participants while you are talking to them

I guarantee that if you apply these rules; you will make your firm thousands of dollars a year due to know-how getting transferred really efficiently. And the next boring lecture you listen to - gently tell the unfortunate instructor how he can make it a whiz bang presentation with accolades heaped on him from a grateful AND smarter audience.

And when you follow the suggestions above, you will truly do as acclaimed US poet, Walt Whitman remarked:

Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve Mackay