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As an audience member, there’s two types of lectures I can get into.

1. The Oh-my-god-I’ve-never-heard-of-such-a-thing-before-stop-it-you’re-blowing-my-mind-wait-don’t-stop-because-you’re-blowing-my-mind lecture, and

2. The I’m-super-well-versed-in-this-stuff-and-am-having-lots-of-thoughts-and-opinions-and-sometimes-I-agree-but-other-times-you’re-so-so-so-wrong-and-I want-interrupt-and-say-so lecture.

In the aftermath of the great laptops in lectures debate, I’ve been thinking more about attention, how it’s gained, what it means, what it’s worth inside an educational context.

In general, I think it’s very difficult for the average person to pay consistent and sustained attention to a 75 minute (or even 50 minute) lecture. Focusing on a message for a continuous period of time is hard regardless of whether or not an electronic device is on hand to distract you.

On the other hand, it does happen. I’ve experienced lectures that have held my interest for sustained periods and upon reflection, realized they fell into one of the two above categories.

While not quite a lecture, a recent forum on the uses of standardized testing featuring Harvard professor Daniel Koresh and his book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better sustained my attention for well over an hour during a livestream presentation

I’d not only recently read Koresh’s book and found it well-argued and thoroughly evidenced, I was in the midst of writing a book chapter on what I call the “problem” of standardization in education as it applies to teaching writing, and how I believe standardization inhibits learning. I was prepped by being well-versed on the specific material while also having a good reservoir of additional subject knowledge, which helped me listen actively and respond with thinking of my own in real time. As I watched the livestream on my laptop, I typed notes and analysis in another file on an external monitor.[1]

I “learned” a lot. Some of that learning was reinforcing ideas I’d previously been exposed to in Koresh’s book, while I also added some insights built out of my own analysis, including why I differ from Koresh in his belief that standardized testing is an important tool for improving schools. If this was a class on educational policy, I would’ve been a model student.

I flashed back on my time at Virginia Tech when I taught a course called Comm Skills, which included explicit lessons in “active listening.” I thought the material was among the most useful I’d cover all semester as students could immediately employ it not just in my class, but in the large lectures of general education. I tried to explain how important it was for them to “talk back” to their lectures, even if they weren’t meant to be interactive. We talked about how they could register questions raised by the lectures in their notes so they could go back and fill in the blanks later.

After we covered the techniques, a week later we’d spend some time in class to see how it was working. I asked if anyone could share their active listening notes, and one student opened his notebook and I saw lines filled with “Huh?” “What?” and lots of other question marks.[2]

I asked him what he was doing and he said he was writing down questions that came up while he was listening actively, just as I’d suggested.

This student simply didn’t have enough existing knowledge to respond to the lecture in real time. He claimed he’d done the reading and even mostly understood it, so it was not for lack of at least reasonable preparation he was having this issue. It’s simply that he was inexperienced, a non-expert, and he was being exposed to many of the ideas for the first time. It’s difficult to respond critically to something for which we have little existing knowledge or context.

Huh? Indeed.

The diligent students were the ones who were primarily transcribing the information presented in the lecture. This wasn’t active listening, but to the lecturer, it would’ve looked like attention because it is attention of a kind, but was primarily serving as a vehicle for information transfer, rather than engaging critical thinking.

We know recall is improved with note taking – this is what those studies on laptops v. handwritten notes test – but how important a skill is information recall in a broader educational context? Even with thorough notes, reams of research tell us that recall will significantly degrade over time. The “forgetting curve” is an iron law for most of us.[3] 

I’ve previously called attention in education a “false god” and I think the recent debate reveals the degree to which we sometimes fetishize attention in ways that may not necessarily be connected to learning, particularly when we’re privileging a kind of attention that’s associated with what I believe is a relatively limited goal of information recall.[4]

TED Talks are an example of the first kind of lecture I find I can pay attention to, primarily because they are structured to be maximally oriented towards the “mind blowing” experience. “You won’t believe this” could preface practically every TED Talk.

But there’s some important limits to TED Talks. They’re short, under 20 minutes, and because of that they usually eschew things like evidence in support of the main thrust of argument. At the same time, no ambiguity is allowed. TED Talks are for IDEAS WORTH SPREADING, and a presentation saying, “this is kind of interesting and might be true,” is not an idea worth spreading. The bias towards sweeping pronouncements devoid of complicating information makes many TED Talks kind of bullshitty.

That handwritten notes are better than typing on a computer is a kind of perfect TED Talk topic. Something that’s true, pretty much, depending on what we mean by “better” and what the purpose of the note taking is supposed to be. 

One of those studies cited as demonstrating the inferiority of laptops v. long hand as a note taking device actually had students watching TED Talks, then testing them on information recall in both factual and conceptual dimensions. Despite writing more words in their notes and capturing more of the lecture verbatim, those who used laptops scored lower on average for recall than those who wrote their notes longhand. It’s possible the laptop users might’ve been overwhelmed by information in a way that hurt their recall in the aftermath of the lecture. 

But here’s my question? Why do we care about how much a student recalls from a TED Talk, or any other lecture? Are we really still in a world where we expect information transmission in a classroom to be an important educational activity?

If we’re going to lecture, aren’t we better striving for triggering a mind-blowing experience and not worry so much about recall. Let the mind-blowing experience that sends the student into a vortex of thought and reflection so deep they can’t pay attention to whatever else is happening be our goal. 




I’ve never tried it, but I think a good whole-class exercise might be to watch a TED Talk and then give them the rest of the period to poke holes in the claims. The class should be able to add complexity the format sands away. Do this enough times and I bet students start to exhibit a different pattern to their note taking as well.

If we treat TED Talks (or any lecture, really) as appetizers, rather than a whole meal, and refrain from judging the quality of the restaurant based only on that appetizer, I find they can be great entrees into a subject because they’ve introduced a challenging idea worth thinking about.

Attention is important if we’re going to value recall, which may be something worth doing sometimes. But attention and recall are not synonymous with learning.

It’s simply more complicated than that.

That wouldn’t make a good TED Talk, but it’s the way things are.





[1] I suppose I could’ve also handwritten my notes, but I have handwriting that’s always been poor, which has been made worse by a periodically troublesome old hand injury. Also, I wanted to able to capture some quotes verbatim in digital so I could later incorporate them into another document.

[2] This was in the days before laptops became ubiquitous so there was no laptop debate as of yet. Most students didn’t even have cell phones yet.

[3] Except for actress Marilu Henner who has “superior autobiographical memory” and can recall just about any moment from her entire life. 

[4] Every study exploring the distracting properties of electronic devices I’ve seen tests their impact on recall. If anyone is aware of one that seeks to measure different outputs, please share it in the comments.

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