Alex Tabarrok writes:

There is something special, magical, and “almost sacred” about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant. It’s even more true that there is something special, magical and almost sacred about the live musical experience. . . .

Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Excellent points (and Tabarrok has additional good points that I haven’t quoted).

We’re not all the way there yet: We have the technology to record a live class for repeated consumption but it’s still not so easy to do, certainly not as easy as pushing a button on a tape recorder to get a rough if imperfect capture of a music performance. It would’ve been cool if my class this fall had been video recorded, but it never happened.

One difference between music and lectures is that, for most people, the only substitute for live music is broadcast or recorded music. In contrast, there’s already a substitute for live lectures, and that’s textbooks. It may well be that in the near future the good lectures will be recorded and students will be required to watch them before they come to class. This will be a great thing. Already, though, students are supposed to read the book before coming to class, and they don’t always do it! One reason I never post my slides before class is that I’m worried that students would then read the slides as a substitute for reading the book. After all, reading the slides is easier. So now I fear the future where students will watch the video instead of reading.

To put it another way, Alex writes, “Recording allows for repeated listening and study. Indeed, one might say that only with recording, can one truly hear.” I think that’s right, but remember that students can read the textbook over and over again too, in fact physical (paper-based) textbooks are random access and I find much easier to go find things in, compared to video.

Another way of saying all this is that we have different goals when doing the following two things:

1. Attending a lecture, reading a textbook, or watching a lecture video.

2. Attending a concert or listening to broadcast or recorded music.

In general, people are doing 1 to learn, and they’re doing 2 for enjoyment. So I think we should expect some differences. Yes, some people listen to music carefully and repeatedly, but that’s still different from taking a class, I think. To put it another way, if you’re a music student listening to music, that’s like a university student taking a class. But lots and lots of people listen to music just to hear it, not to study it, while not so many people watch college classes just for fun.

This is not to disagree with any of Alex’s points but rather to explore them. I agree with everything that Alex wrote, and I also agree that it would be good to move toward a future where instructors do very little lecturing and instead spend class time helping students working on problems in small groups. That’s how they do things in high school, as I recall (just with textbooks rather than videos). When discussing teaching strategy with our young instructors here, I always advise them to go with the book rather than spending long hours preparing supplementary reading material (which, I assure them, the students will never read). I also tell them not to prepare lectures, not to lecture at all but just to go with the textbook and spend class time working out problems (this is particularly appropriate and easy to do in an introductory class). They usually don’t follow my advice, but I think that’s not because they think their lectures are so great but rather because things are set up now so that it’s much less effort to stand up and lecture than to arrange problem-solving and discussion sections. That’s what happens with me: if I’m not well-enough organized, lecturing is a default style. Which I don’t like, but that’s how it often happens, cos I haven’t prepared enough problems ahead of time for students to work on and discuss in class.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.