Lecturing, Like Teaching, Is a Practical Art.


Practical Arts

There are many facts and principles that are relevant to cooking.

  • The way gluten works in dough to form something that is chewy or tender.
  • The various temperatures at which meat must be cooked to be tasty or safe.
  • Etc.

And you can know many such things and still be just a terrible cook.

In a practical art, you must actually do something. And the proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating.

You can't just know some facts and principles: you must marshall the facts and apply the principles in a particular task, and you must know whether what's in front of you is rare, well-done or burnt beyond rescue.

Teaching Is a Practical Art.

The teacher must teach this lesson and then that one, this topic and that one, this student and that one.

There's no shortage of theories of teaching and learning. They can be found in:

  • instructional design,
  • educational psychology,
  • cognitive psychology,
  • curriculum design,
  • etc.

But a practical art is not applied theories: it is knowledge used. (And this is why arts education probably has more to say about teaching the practical arts than theories do: arts are not just ideas--they're applied.)

So what does a teacher actually do? And how do we help her do it?

Practical Arts Connect Instances to Types.

One of my key ideas about teaching as a practical art is: the central distinction in any practice (as opposed to theory) is type vs. instance.

For those of you who are not philosophy nerds: the letter "y" is a type, and every single letter y, whether it's hand-written or typeset and printed in ink or glowing on a screen is an instance of that type.

  • Every practitioner is constantly asking herself: "Is what I'm looking at or doing an instance of Type X--or not?"
    • Is the steak I'm looking at rare or medium?
    • Has the gluten set up in this dough to make it chewy?
    • Have I stirred this batter too much and made it tough, not tender?


  • Is what I need to teach today a fact, rule or procedure?
  • Is the student behavior I'm seeing a result of lack of motivation, lack of prior knowledge of the topic, lack of doing the homework--or something else?

A Good Lecture Is Organized as Instances of a Type.

As education goes, so goes the lecture. Indeed, I am beginning to think the lecture is a very fine microcosm for so many facets of education, that one could begin and end with the lecture and still get a lot said and done.

That said, the type/instance distinction should be the central organizing principle of lecturing.

  • A big chunk of what we do in teaching is: to present abstract types through typical instances.
    • We start with the clearest, most prototypical instance. Only then should we introduce the abstract or general type--the rule, concept, procedure, etc.
  • Yes, we teach concepts and procedures and problem-solving and cognitive strategies. But the type-instance relation dominates over all these.
    • A concrete instance is the best way to present new information.

Why are concrete details so appealing? Shouldn't we start with a clear generality?


Dale Was Right--But Not Like People Think.

Dale's "Cone of Experience" is often trotted out to discuss instructional media--and to recommend hands-on activities over the mere reading of words off a page.

But people have forgotten what Dale was writing about.

  • Dale was trying to conceptualize various degrees of remove from concrete immediate experience to various kinds of abstractions.
  • Dale believed that what was more immediate was more striking and engaging, and anything derivative becomes increasingly pallid.

One can object to this as Platonism, but as a rule-of-thumb, there is something to Dale's idea.

Even if we admit that in a lecture or essay we are still using symbols called words to talk about an imaginary situation, an imagined situation described in detail can still be more engaging than words referring to pure abstractions. (Have you ever read a good novel? Those symbols can be pretty engaging.)

  • Compare the following two statements of the same idea.

    • e = mc2
    • If you squeeze a piece of plutonium hard enough, the physical matter in it will turn into energy--so much energy that 2.2 pounds of plutonium will produce the same size explosion as 21 thousand tons of TNT.

The latter is expressed in symbols called words--but it is considerably more compelling than Einstein's famous formula.

How To Lecture: A Suggestion

A clear pathway for organizing lectures would work like this.

  • Start with a clear and interesting instance of the topic.
    • Try to make that instance striking or surprising in some way--something that diverges from common sense.
    • Avoid introducing technical vocabulary before you have described the instance in ordinary language that non-experts can follow.
  • Only then introduce the general type of which you've given a striking instance.
    • Present this general type as clearly and simply as you can.
  • Revisit your clear & striking instance, and 'process it' into the chunks of your abstraction.
    • This is a bit easier if your initial instance is sequenced somehow to match the abstraction--for instance that each big piece of it or major player aligns neatly with a key concept in the abstraction.
  • Continue with a series of increasingly complex or ramified instances.
    • Alternate between interesting details and clear abstractions.
    • It is best to add complexity to your abstractions no more than one or two elements at a time: too many complications will prevent the listener from following.

In short:

  • Begin by interesting your audience in a fascinating and puzzling problem. The form here is a detailed story, a kind of mystery, about a problem--and its surprising solution.

How To Lecture Poorly

This suggests that lectures can fail to help the learner in a few ways.

  • Some poor lectures start at the level of abstraction and technical vocabulary and stay there too long. If the listener has no idea what the abstractions point to, it will be devilishly hard to process what's being said.
  • Another sort of poor lecture presents many details without saying what they're about or how they're related: many instances without any clear type. The listener wants to shout: "This is an example of what?"
  • Yet another type of poor lecture tries to get the student to solve a detailed problem she can't possibly

And if you want to see many instances of lecturing poorly, just look at some of the video lectures which seem to be the mainstay of MOOC's these days. (You'll also see some good lecturing, too--but you'll have to look hard for it.)

--Edward R. O'Neill


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