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Lecture Me. Really.

By Molly Worthen, The New York Times, 10/17/15

A good lecture is an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media.

BEFORE the semester began earlier this fall, I went to check out the classroom where I would be teaching an introductory American history course. Like most classrooms at my university, this one featured lots of helpful gadgets: a computer console linked to an audiovisual system, a projector screen, and USB ports galore. But one thing was missing:….a simple wooden lectern to hold my lecture notes….

The active learning craze is only the latest development in a long tradition of complaining about boring professors, flavored with a dash of that other great American pastime, populist resentment of experts. But there is an ominous note in…calls to replace the “sage on the stage” with student-led discussion…. They are an attempt to further assimilate history, philosophy, literature and their sister disciplines to the goals and methods of the hard sciences — fields whose stars are rising….

Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.

Today’s vogue for active learning is nothing new. In 1852, John Henry Newman wrote …that true learning “consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas hitherto unknown to it, but in the mind’s energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas.” …

In the humanities, a good lecture class does just what Newman said: It keeps students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action. And it teaches a rare skill in our smartphone-app-addled culture: the art of attention, the crucial first step in the “critical thinking” that educational theorists prize….

A lecture “places a premium on the connections between individual facts,” Monessa Cummins, the chairwoman of the classics department and a popular lecturer at Grinnell College, told me. “It is not a recitation of facts, but the building of an argument.”

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize, and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this…. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into [education] from the business world….

The ability to concentrate is not just a study skill. As Dr. Cummins put it, “Can [students] listen to a political candidate with an analytical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.”…

Professors should embrace lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media. More and more of my colleagues are banning the use of laptops in their classrooms. They say that despite initial grumbling, students usually praise the policy by the end of the semester. “I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,” Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. “The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.”

Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty. A good lecturer is “someone who conveys that there’s something at stake in what you’re talking about,” Dr. Delbanco said….

Good lecturers communicate the emotional vitality of the intellectual endeavor (“the way she lectured always made you make connections to your own life,” wrote one of Dr. Cummins’ students in an online review). But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking…. The real power of good notes lies in how they shape the mind….

[As one student said,] “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

Technology can be a saboteur. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop…. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

This is not a “passive” learning experience; lectures cannot be replicated by asking students to watch videotaped lectures online: the temptations of the Internet, the safeguard of the rewind button, and the comforts of the dorm-room sofa are deadly to the attention span….

[Lecture and notetaking] prepare students to succeed in the class format that so many educators, parents, and students fetishize: the small seminar discussion. A lecture course teaches students that listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next — and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions. “We don’t want to pretend that all we have to do is prod the student and the truth will come out,” Dr. Delbanco told me.

Such words of caution are deeply unfashionable. But humanists have been beating back calls to update our methods, to follow the lead of the sciences, for a very long time. One hundred and sixty years ago, when education reformers proposed training students only in the sciences…John Henry Newman defended the humanities…as crucial disciplines for teaching a student how to think, “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent,” Newman wrote. “He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”

Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

See also in ClassWise:

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Can “Mindfulness” Help Students Do Better in School?

By Emily Holland, The Wall Street Journal, 2/16/15

 Advocates say the technique raises focus, lowers stress. Critics see religion in disguise.

“Mindfulness” has gotten a lot of buzz recently, with everyone from tech executives to professional athletes to lawmakers saying they use it to combat stress, stay balanced and perform better…. Now some educators and psychologists think schoolchildren could [also] benefit.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation rooted in spiritual teaching in which people focus their full attention on the present moment. They acknowledge what they are feeling and experiencing—and accept it without judgment…. The idea is to quiet the mind and heighten awareness.

The movement is making its way into schools…propelled by advocates who say teaching children how to use techniques such as meditation and controlled breathing to clear their minds can help sharpen students’ focus, reduce their stress,…and boost academic performance.

“Studies show that children who learn mindfulness and meditation are more resilient,” says Sarah McKay, an Oxford University-trained neuroscientist…. “It helps settle them down and improves concentration, particularly if done before school or after lunch breaks.”…

Power of Meditation

Twelve years ago [actress Goldie Hawn] started a program…called MindUP that teaches children how to regulate their emotions and reduce stress with activities such as “brain breaks,” in which they spend two to three minutes concentrating on their breathing. Approximately 13,500 teachers and more than 405,000 students in the U.S. have been exposed to MindUP training since 2011, according to the foundation.

“A stressed brain [is] a brain that doesn’t focus or learn as well,” says Ms. Hawn, who created the MindUP curriculum with the help of neuroscientists, psychologists, and education experts. “I wasn’t going to make a move…without research,” she says, stressing that MindUP is a “neurologically based program.”…

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that adolescents suffering from a variety of mental and medical conditions who underwent an eight-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction experienced reduced depression and anxiety and increased self-esteem….

Mindful Schools, a nonprofit provider of mindfulness education for teachers, conducted a study with the University of California, Davis, in 2011-12 that focused on three public elementary schools in Oakland, all located in high-crime neighborhoods. The study’s authors reported significant improvements in the behavior of children who practiced mindfulness compared with those who didn’t.

Religion in Disguise?

Not everyone likes the idea of meditation being taught in schools. Candy Gunther Brown, a religion professor at Indiana University, is one. Promoters of mindfulness programs are essentially taking Buddhist practices and “changing the vocabulary,” she says…. She teaches students about different religions and practices, including mindfulness, but “I do not have my students meditate,” says Ms. Brown, pointing to the Supreme Court ruling that gave schools permission to teach about religion but prohibited them from instilling religious practices.

Tina Olesen, a teacher at Westminster Classical Christian Academy in Toronto, say she became skeptical of mindfulness a few years ago for similar reasons while teaching at a public school in British Columbia. She believed that the mindfulness techniques the school counselors were teaching students were, in fact, Buddhist practices being presented as neuroscience. As a Christian, she found that troubling, she says, “since schools are supposed to be secular environments….”

In some cases, opposition has been so strong mindfulness programs were pulled from schools…. Resistance also can come from teachers, who question why another task is being added to their already full plates.

Chris McKenna, the program director at Mindful Schools, says mindfulness programs can’t succeed without buy-in from teachers, which is why they need to be kept “simple and doable.”

He also says interest in them has to happen organically—a position echoed by U.S. congressman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat and mindfulness supporter.

“I don’t think we ever want to be in a position where we’re forcing [schools] to do this,” says Mr. Ryan, author of A Mindful Nation. The goal, he says, should be to create awareness of the different options that are available to support children.

See also in ClassWise:  “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime”

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Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime

By Ferris Jabr, Scientific American, 10/15/13

Mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.

[Michael’s note: How might these principles apply not just to improving our performance as teachers but also to helping our students achieve more balance in their academic lives?]

Throughout history people have intuited that… devotion to perpetual busyness does not in fact translate to greater productivity and is not particularly healthy. What if the brain requires substantial downtime to remain industrious and generate its most innovative ideas? “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times….

Even when we are relaxing, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather…many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance….

In a recent thought-provoking review of research,… Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her co-authors argue that…downtime is an opportunity for the brain to make sense of what it has recently learned…and to swivel its powers of reflection away from the external world toward itself. While mind-wandering we replay conversations we had earlier that day, rewriting our verbal blunders as a way of learning to avoid them in the future. We craft fictional dialogue to practice standing up to someone who intimidates us or to reap the satisfaction of an imaginary harangue against someone who wronged us. We shuffle through all those neglected mental post-it notes listing half-finished projects and we mull over the aspects of our lives with which we are most dissatisfied, searching for solutions…. We subject ourselves to a kind of performance review….

Some studies have demonstrated that the mind obliquely solves tough problems while daydreaming—an experience many people have had while taking a shower. Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime….

During downtime,…the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue. Most of us have observed how, after a good night’s sleep, the vocab words we struggled to remember the previous day suddenly leap into our minds or that technically challenging piano song is much easier to play. Dozens of studies have confirmed that memory depends on sleep….

That learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of The Florida State University has spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise. Based on his own work and a thorough review of the relevant research, Ericsson concludes that most people can engage in deliberate practice—which means pushing oneself beyond current limits—for only an hour without rest; that extremely talented people in many different disciplines—music, sports, writing—rarely practice more than four hours each day on average; and that many experts prefer to begin training early in the morning when mental and physical energy is readily available. “Unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and nighttime sleep allow the individuals to restore their equilibrium,” Ericsson wrote, “individuals often encounter overtraining injuries and, eventually, incapacitating ‘burnout.’”

These principles are derived from the rituals of the exceptional, but they are useful for anyone in any profession.…

Beyond renewing one’s powers of concentration, downtime can in fact bulk up the muscle of attention—something that scientists have observed repeatedly in studies on meditation…. Although meditation is not equivalent to zoning out or daydreaming, many styles challenge people to sit in a quiet space, close their eyes and turn their attention away from the outside world toward their own minds. Mindfulness meditation, for example, generally refers to a sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions and sensations in the present moment. For many people, mindfulness is about paying close attention to whatever the mind does on its own, as opposed to directing one’s mind to accomplish this or that….

Michael Taft [editor of Being Human, a website on meditation, psychology, and technology] advocates deliberate mental breaks during “all the in-between moments” in an average day—a subway ride, lunch, a walk. He stresses, though, that there’s a big difference between admiring the idea of more downtime and committing to it in practice. “Getting out into nature on the weekends, meditating, putting away our computers now and then—a lot of it is stuff we already know we should probably do,” he says. “But we have to be a lot more diligent about it. Because it really does matter.”

Ferris Jabr is a freelance science journalist and a contributing writer to Scientific American.

See also in ClassWise: “Learning That Lasts”

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The Power of Music

By Amisha Padnani, The New York Times, 8/11/12 Some workers like to listen to music when they find themselves losing focus. They may also plug in their earbuds to escape an environment that’s too noisy — or too quiet — or to make a repetitive job feel more lively. In biological terms, melodious sounds help encourage the […]
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Don’t Listen to Music While Studying

By David Cutler, from the website Edutopia I notice several students listening to music while busy at work…. I ask one student why music helps her concentrate. “It soothes me and makes me less stressed,” she says…. As a college student,…music offered me not only comfort but also increased focus–or so I thought, until coming across […]
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