I'm a daydream believer in a passive learning nightmare

26th October 2012 at 01:00
A boring lecture was useful in one way: it reminded me how vital it is to be engaging

On two occasions at university I was asked to leave a lecture. The reason, each time, was that I found the lecture uninteresting and my face could not conceal it. Listening to a dull speaker for 50 minutes is not, for me, a comfortable way of learning.

Since then, my tolerance for passive learning hasn't improved. My attention span, worn down by too many dreary lectures and PowerPoints, has shortened. During a recent 100-minute monologue by one of Scotland's top education thinkers I began to disengage after 12 minutes.

The speaker was receiving a tidy sum for his efforts and, I presume, felt talking for so long would justify his fee. But the speaker's discourse was about Curriculum for Excellence and how teachers have to work harder to engage young minds and make learning more interesting. "What about engaging older minds?" I wanted to shout.

This was a case of "do what I say, not what I do". I thought about livening things up by politely questioning the speaker's rather traditional and didactic approach to imparting information. But I know, from experience, that such interventions are not appreciated and are, wrongly, considered ill-mannered rather than constructive. It is better, I have learnt, to sit quietly, try to garner interest and applaud politely at the end.

Other teachers adopt the same strategy and this is why boring lectures survive to inflict further misery on us. "Being bored is a failure of mental discipline," a head told me while refusing my request to be excused, on the grounds of being one of Howard Gardner's kinaesthetic learners, from what I knew would be an excruciatingly dull PowerPoint presentation.

Over the years, and various in-service days, I have tried to master the art of appearing interested in what a dull speaker is saying, while actually thinking and writing about something else. Indeed, I occasionally manage to draft some useful lesson plans during such talks.

Daydreaming is another useful technique for getting through wearisome presentations. This usually involves visualising being somewhere else and doing something more interesting than sitting and listening.

Although Freud dismisses daydreaming as a form of fantasising, and an indicator of immaturity and unhappiness, other psychoanalysts believe it is a positive practice and a sign of a healthy and creative mind.

The restlessness of some of my colleagues during the 100-minute monologue suggests that other teachers, particularly the younger ones, also have an intolerance to passive learning. Such talks do, however, serve at least one useful purpose: they remind us of what pupils have to endure and of the clear need for practitioners to work harder to keep them engaged and interested.

John Greenlees, Secondary teacher.

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