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Adult education pedagogy: lectures and discussion?

October 7, 2013

A good starting question is: ‘Do lectures have a place in pedagogy of adult education?’

Lots of adult education classes, particularly in the arts and humanities, are lecture based and they’re popular with some classes and particularly older students. A well presented lecture gives students an opportunity to hear and see an enthusiastic expert, even a celebrity, develop an argument that can engage and stimulate a serious interest and debate in the subject. The presence of the web has greatly increased the availability of lectures. Many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) provide a series of lectures as their core; TED offers an attractive playlist of virtual lectures, many by well known experts; etc.

Lectures are an important part of adult education but in my opinion they can only form part of a learning programme especially given the student centred ethos of adult education.

Early WEA tutorial classes included a lecture, class discussion and independent work by the student producing an essay which in turn received assessment and feedback. In most educational settings (Universities, FE colleges etc) this sort of mix would be the case: lecture, seminar, essay or other assessed work. However in much of post-war adult education, student written work withered on the vine; tutorial classes became shorter (one or two terms rather than three years) and the requirement for written work was dropped.

Writing is about learning as well as communicating. It  gives the opportunity to take hold of ideas and arguments and refine and develop one’s own understanding and perspective. The process of drafting and redrafting (admittedly often painful and time consuming) enables this to take place as well as producing a piece of work for  individual feedback from the tutor.

It’s true that many adult education students have continued to do independent work outside the classroom, quite a considerable amount in some cases including researching, preparatory reading, visiting museums and galleries, and getting involved in local societies and organisations. And, from the 1970’s there were new opportunities, such as the Open University and expanding adult provision (like Access courses) in Further Education,  for adults seeking an accessible and academically challenging education.

Discussion was always an important part of the tutorial class tradition, very effectively used by historians like Tawney to draw out students’ experience and enrich their and his understanding of the subject. It is interesting too to see how the young Raymond Williams (who became an eminent Marxist cultural theorist) approached this as a WEA /Oxford University literature tutor in East Sussex in the 1950’s. He abandoned the existing approach based on literary criticism and instead asked students to read and discuss the texts, or extracts from them. Complaints were made about Williams because he would often remain silent until a student instigated discussion rather than speak himself.

Discussion-based learning is  an essential, if not sufficiently appreciated, part of the core of adult education practice that requires considerable skill amongst tutors and students. In my experience, some of the main teaching, learning and assessment issues are:

  • ensuring inclusive participation in what are often very mixed groups
  • discouraging deference either towards the tutor or towards knowledgable students
  • encouraging independent and critical thinking
  • developing the learning skills and confidence to enable students to benefit from course discussions
  • drawing out the experience and ideas of students and incorporating their particular learning aims
  • giving feedback to individuals to help them develop their understanding
  • getting feedback from students and securing an accurate sense of what learning is taking place
  • managing the discussion and ensuring adherence to ground rules

Adult educators have accumulated a vast amount of experience in addressing these sorts of issues through class discussion and particularly through the use of small group work. The latter gives greater opportunity for each student to participate, ask questions and test out ideas and doubts. It’s a good way to draw out students’ experience and existing knowledge and skills. It can be used to develop listening, summarising and reporting skills and enables the group to put forward collective responses. Reporting back enables the tutor, and other groups, to give feedback and comment. Used effectively it can shift the tutor/student power relations towards a more collaborative effort and enable the course as a whole to have ownership of things like ground rules.

Returning to the original question, I think lectures are best used to spark and shape student engagement, encouraging questions and an exploration of the information and argument provided. A mini lecture (10-20 minutes max) can set the scene, outline an argument (or range of arguments) and then present questions for students. This approach could be extended to  virtual lectures and learning circles  using group discussion methods to explore and respond to the issues raised in the lecture.

The role of the lecture is still a live issue in adult education, including the WEA, and I would be interested in other people’s perspective on this.


From → Adult Education

One Comment
  1. Why am I always agreeing with you!! Again nicely put Pete. As you suggest the key here is not whether lectures are appropriate or not, but rather how a lecture is used as part of a broader strategy to engage students, to develop dialogue and critical thought and thereby learning. Too often the idea of a lecture is perceived as being one dimensional; that is a lecturer delivering knowledge and information to a bunch of empty vessels who take it in and depart ‘fuller’ than when they arrived. Nice, simple, passive sort of stuff. And distinctly not the approach the WEA would endorse. But if the lecture is designed both to impart knowledge as well as to raise key, critical questions both for quiet reflection as well as perhaps noisy debate and dialogue then we are talking about something quite different and distinctly part of an appropriate WEA/adult education pedagogy. Lectures can be broken up to allow paired discussions, small group work, individual reflection and note taking and straight questioning and wider discussion as a whole group. And I’m sure there are other creative approaches which others will flag up here.
    What they must never be – and I remember this so well even now 40 years later – is a monologue for one hour lifted word-for -word from a book, even if said book was written by the lecturer. Just thinking about it makes me feel drowsy!!!

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