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Lecture Isn’t a Teaching Strategy (Part 2): A Parable

Last week’s post focused on three major problems with lecture and offered suggestions on what to do about them. As a reminder, the three problems were:

  1. In lecture, the presenter has no idea whether or not the learners get it.
  2. Belief in the myth that lecture is simply faster and easier for both learner and presenter to just tell people what they need to know.
  3. Lecture doesnt always provide a direct connection between the content at hand and how it can be applied to meet the needs of the learner in real life.

This week, I’ll illustrate those points with a short parable of how one attorney decided to eschew the organization’s typical lecture on sexual harassment during their new hire orientation in order to engage his learners and ensure they each understood the concepts.

Josh had been delegated the sexual harassment talk for the upcoming new hire orientation. His boss provided Josh a Word document with 19 bulleted points on the topic and a video to show next week’s group of 4 new hires. When asked for any words of wisdom in presenting it, Josh’s boss explained: “It’s pretty straight forward, just show the video and answer any questions. Check it off the box and let the new folks go to lunch. Anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing. We just need to be sure we cover it.”

At 11:30 on Tuesday morning, Josh arrived at the training room, ready to ensure that the four new hires he was about to meet would always remember the organization’s policy on sexual harassment.  Josh found the new hires unattended at the moment by any staff members.  They said the previous session had ended a few minutes early and they were given a break until this session.  They were all hungry and looking forward to lunch after this 45 minute session.

Josh surveyed the faces of each new hire – they all looked relatively young.  Definitely in their early 20s.  After greeting them, he asked if any of them knew who Clarence Thomas was.  The new hires looked at one another, and at in unison two of them said: “a Supreme Court justice.”  One new hire continued on: “Jinx!  Buy me a coke!!”

Ignoring the last comment, Josh asked if any of them knew who Anita Hill was.  The new hires again looked at one another.  Nobody responded.  The room was awkwardly silent.  So much for “anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing.”

“You know what, never mind about those obscure references.  As you can all see from the agenda, we’re here to discuss sexual harassment.  What is sexual harassment?”

Silence again.  The new hires looked around the room.  Stared at the ceiling.  And the floor.  There was no eye contact with Josh.

“Actually, it’s not a rhetorical question.  I really want to know what you all know about the topic.  Why don’t we do this: each of you pair off and take 45 seconds to share with a partner everything you know about sexual harassment.”

After a moment or two, the new hires turned to a neighbor and began sharing thoughts.  Forty-five seconds later Josh brought their attention back to him.  “Well, it sounds like some people in here know something about sexual harassment.  What did you talk about?”

One pair shared that they thought sexual harassment had to do with hitting on co-workers, even after being told to stop.  The other pair mentioned that they had heard the term “hostile work environment” but they weren’t quite sure what that meant.  A five minute conversation around the overall topic of sexual harassment ensued.

Once the conversation and questions began to wane, Josh announced that they were going to watch a video.  The video had four different scenarios.  Josh gave each new hire a piece of paper to take notes.  In one column, new hires were asked to jot down one ah-ha moment, question or take-away from each scenario.  In a second column, new hires were asked to jot down any themes that arose from the initial group discussion on sexual harassment that they observed in any of the scenarios (i.e. do any of these scenarios illustrate the idea of creating a “hostile working environment” that we discussed in our initial conversation?).

Following the video Josh led a conversation about each scenario using the notes that the new hires jotted down.  In order to wrap up the 45-minute session, Josh quizzed each new hire on a hypothetical situation and what each new hire would do if confronted with such a situation.

As Josh released the new hires for their lunch break, one commented that this was the “fastest 45 minutes of the day so far.  I mean, time really flew by in this session.  And I have to say, I was expecting someone to just talk at us about the topic for 30 or 40 minutes and then pass us off to the next presenter.  That’s how the rest of the morning has gone so far.  And it hasn’t been easy staying awake or paying attention to those sessions.”

A second new hire added, “Yeah, I always expect new hire orientation sessions to be quick ‘check off the box that I learned this or that topic.’ It seems like it would just be easier to tell us the information and move on.  But I really appreciated this session.  I can definitely say I will remember it.  While the topic itself is dry and quite frankly kind of icky, this session was very interesting.  Thanks for getting us talking.  And thinking.”

As a presenter, is it more fun to talk at the learners or engage in dialogue with the learners?  As a learner, is it more valuable to have a chance to discuss ideas and thoughts with other learners and the presenter, or do you want to just get the information and move on?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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