Archive for the lectures and other pedagogic forms Category

A couple weeks ago I spoke of the requirements of a listening mindset.  About how one can’t truly listen, either as a teacher or as an innovation marketer, unless one first recognizes that one’s audience does not see your questions as the questions of importance.  About how you can’t solve your problems with others not listening unless you are willing to bear the lion’s share of the listening cost burden.

About how one can’t truly listen well unless one ASSUMES that the audience has GOOD reasons for not listening to you.  That regardless of whether you think listening to you is more important to your student or prospect than anything else, your student and your prospect don’t agree.  That they consider those other things to be valuable and that, when it comes to getting them to listen, theirs is the only opinion that matters.

Today, I want to speak of the remaining requirement for a listening mindset, iteration.  Or, as my company motto puts it, “Listen.  Think.  Repeat.”

Listening cannot be something one does once, before moving on and starting to talk/sell again.   It has to be done again and again and again.  No matter how good a listener you think you might be, you aren’t going to hear well the first time.  Your own biases, prejudices, your own “usual suspects,” aren’t going to let you.  You’re going to hear the other guy’s words, but the meaning you ascribe to those words is going to reflect your values, not his.

Nothing wrong with that, per se.  You’re entitled to your values, and listening is not about changing your values.  It’s not about your values at all.

Listening is about hearing the other person’s values.  It’s about what Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments called “sympathy” or “fellow-feeling.”  It’s about what the literary critic Kenneth Burke called “identification.”  It’s about mentally walking a mile in the other person’s shoes.

And then walking another mile.  And another.

Teachers and those who would market innovation share one character trait — they tend to be very passionate about their subject.  I teach economics because, deep in my bones, I believe that the world would be better off if more people used the “economic way of thinking.”  Larry Page and Sergei Brin started Google because, deep in their bones, they believed that a new approach to online search would change the world, and change the world for the better.

Teaching is about changing the world and improving people’s lives.  Innovation is about changing the world and improving people’s lives.

But if you’re out to change the world, it’s easy to forget that others aren’t interested in changing.  That they’ve got very different notions about what improves their lives than you do.  As a teacher, as an innovator, you’re a true believer.

And true believers need to be extra attentive in finding ways of short-circuiting their own brains.  Ways of keeping their passions from reducing the effectiveness of their listening.

And part of doing that short-circuiting is repetition.  Make yourself listen again and again, and the varying contexts of your listening will lead you to hear better.

But iteration is more than mere repetition.

It’s not just asking the same question of your audience again and again.  It’s asking different questions.  It’s asking the same question in different ways.  It’s asking the question in a way that prompts a short answer and then asking it in a way that prompts a long one.  And then asking it a third time in a way that brings out an answer that contradicts one or both of the first two.

Iteration is repetition that adapts.  Iteration is paying attention to how people respond to your actions, and then changing the way you do things.  Changing how you listen.  It’s asking the question a fourth way, even though you’re pretty sure you understand where the other guy is coming from after the first three.

And it’s not always going with what works.  When it comes to listening, nothing works every time.  There is no simple system that, if you memorize its steps, will always get you listening more effectively.  Any “five steps to effective listening” is just going to wire particular thinking patterns in your brain; and listening is about subverting those thinking patterns, not replacing one hardwiring with another.

Iteration is about toggling your brain.  It’s not about finding ways of removing constraints or thinking outside the box.

It’s exactly the opposite.  It’s about recognizing the way(s) in which you process incoming information, and then forcing yourself to choose different ways.  It’s about constraining your thinking more rather than less.

This is part of the genius of Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats”.  By providing a method where you can switch from “emotional” (Red Hat) to “pointing out problems” (Black Hat) to “collecting information (“White Hat”) modes of thinking and so on, you subvert the usual suspects that “gut feeling” and “critical thinking” and “research” might otherwise draw you to naturally, even as you still reap the benefits of each.

But much as I like the Six Hats method, I don’t always use it the same way.  And I don’t always use it.

Sometimes I’ll substitute one of the thinking methods of Genrikh Altshuller’s TRIZ.  Or I’ll do a heavy dose of Socratic method in the manner of my law school teachers.  Or I’ll just do an open-ended one-minute class assessment.  (“Take one minute and a piece of paper, and answer the following question:  what’s working in class, what’s not?”)

I love mind-mapping, and so I often use it as a note taking method while I’m reading a student paper or conferencing.  But I don’t always use it.  Sometimes I’ll strive to put everything in a nice linear outline.  And still others I won’t use keyboard or pen at all, instead just focus on leaning toward or away from the speaker.

It’s not about always going with the gut and taking things on faith.  It’s not about always using the scientific method.  It’s not about always being linear or always being nonlinear.

It’s about sometimes choosing to emphasize particular thinking muscles as you strive to listen and sometimes choosing others.  And it’s about being very aware of your own preferred ways of thinking and interacting with students/prospects, and then being aware about when you use each of them.

It isn’t about thinking in the right way.  It’s about always being aware that, despite the particulars of your hardwiring, you can still choose which mode of thinking to emphasize at a given moment.  As long as you regularly make thinking about how you are thinking a conscious part of your thinking.

“Always” is the enemy of effective listening.  Any always will just privilege different usual suspects.

“Sometimes, and sometimes not, and being conscious of which it is at the moment” — that’s the key.


Imagine yourself as 20 years old, experiencing the following when you go to the first day of a new class:  The professor comes in, sets his notebook on the front desk, and starts by saying to you, “Good morning.  My name is Wade Shilts.  This is Economics 130:  Principles of Economics.   I know more about economics than you do.  The purpose of this class if for me to tell you what’s important for you to know about economics, and for you to learn to think about economics like I tell you to think.  So listen up and do what I say.”

How would you react?

Get angry?  Be appalled?   Look for a way to drop or switch classes?  Consider this Shilts character to be an arrogant asshole?  Walk over to the dean’s office and complain?  Complain to your parents?  Vent with classmates in the dorm and via text message?  All of the above?

Yet if you look at what literary critic types might call the “subtext” of word choice by the great majority of professors and “top teachers” over the course of the term, the above scenario would be just about right.  If you don’t believe me, buy a parabolic mike, violate a few civil liberties, and eavesdrop on the conversations at faculty meetings and the faculty mailroom.

We’re the professors.  We know, therefore we profess.  You’re the students.  You don’t, therefore you listen.

Think I’m too harsh on myself and my colleagues?

Well, look carefully at the each pair of sentences below.  And ask which set is closer to the way of speaking of most college- or university-level teachers.  (Or, if like me, you are a teacher yourself, which is closer to the way you talk in class.)

Pair #1:

  • Here’s how to do it.
  • Here’s what you need to learn.

Pair #2:

  • Here’s how we’ve done it.
  • Here’s what we’ve learned.

Now, some might ask, aren’t you just playing word games here, Wade?  Isn’t it “merely” a matter of semantics?  Is there really a difference between the two?

Yes, there is a difference.  A big one.  Semantics aren’t “mere,” because words do make a difference.    There’s a difference between telling people what to do/learn using sentences in the present test and telling people what has been done/learned using past tense sentences.  Each sentence in the second pair has an implicit “so far” or “up to now, anyway” at the end.

The teacher who talks about “how to do it” is emphasizing conformity, suggesting not only that we’re doing something in a better way than before, but that we’ve discovered the best way for doing it.  Not only is the teacher suggesting to the student that the teacher’s thinking is better than what the student’s thinking was before the teacher enlightened him, the teacher is saying to the student that the teacher’s thinking is not something that the student can improve on.   The student is encouraged to believe that the teacher’s wisdom is, as it were, as good as it gets.

On the other hand, the teacher who talks “how we’ve done it?” is emphasizing the historical character of his understanding.  He’s acknowledging that his way is from the past.  He’s   implicitly admitting that the future (i.e., what the student does) may offer improvement over that historical understanding.

If the present tense of “how to do it” emphasizes conformity, the past tense of “how we’ve done it” provides fertile ground for innovation.   The student is encouraged to think, “well, maybe there is still something new to be learned here.”  The student is enticed into wondering, “And what we have learned so far is importance because…??”

And let’s face it, today’s 20-year-olds are too street smart, too self-assured, to accept our arguments that “you need to do/know this” just because we tell them so.  If anything, our taking such an imperative stance is likely to have the kind of result that my hypothetical speech above would were I so dumb as to use it to open my semester.  The 20-year-old isn’t going to be convinced by the argument from tradition just because it is accompanied by credentials.  He just isn’t.

Too much of our word choice as teachers works to keep students from asking questions of “So?” and “So what?”  The questions we ought to be encouraging them to ask.

I know, I know.  “So?” and “So what?” questions can be very annoying when you’re standing up at the front of the room after having spent years accumulating your knowledge and expertise.  And they tend to get raised at the most inconvenient of times.

But “So?” and “So what” are exactly the kind of questions today’s students must be adept at asking and finding good answers to if they are to survive in prosper in the world of the 21st century.

Part of the teacher’s function is to make people uncomfortable, to get students to realize that answers to the important questions are often uncertain and ephemeral.  And, unfortunately, students are going to consent to being made uncomfortable only when they first see us willing to make ourselves uncomfortable first.


Why, Wade, if listening is so important, do you spend so much time writing such long blog entries?

Why, Wade, if listening is so important, and adopting the pose of Herr Doktor Professor Expert as dangerous as you say it is, do you find it so easy to embark upon a lecture at the drop of the hat?

First, because lecturing need not be done in the mode and persona of Herr Doktor Professor Expert.  I cannot imagine adding my voice to the choir singing that the “lecture is outdated and obsolete and anti-learning” or any of that.  I don’t believe that.  Just because a thing is done badly by so many, and in fact so badly so often by myself, does not mean it lacks value when done well.

It seems to me that a lecture can serve one or both of two purposes.

First, it can serve as a transmitter of information from the lecturer to the audience.  Frankly, I’m not particularly good at this kind of lecture, and I try to avoid taking that approach as often as possible.

Second, and this is why I continue to lecture (or, in my preferred jargon, “pontificate”). I see the good lecture as an invitation to converse.   Look at David’s or Ina’s comments in this blog, and you don’t just see me lecturing to passive readers.  You see conversations where all concerned are thinking deeply and pushing others to do the same.

Thinkers as different as Genrikh Altshuller and Edward de Bono have demonstrated, to my mind beyond doubt, that creativity, innovation, and lots of other good things result much more often when the thinker is constrained.  Simple brainstorming, apart from its “breaking the ice” and other socialization functions, generally is counterproductive.  Trying to think outside the box just gets one lost.  People just go down the same thought paths they always do:  democrats think of democrat-type solutions, republicans like republicans, anarchists like anarchists, engineers like engineers, copywriters like copywriters, English professors like English professors, affluent 18-year-olds like affluent 18-year-olds.

No, routes to better thinking are constrained in some way.   And a good lecture does just that.

It constrains the lecturer.   He or she can’t just go off and rant.  He must think of what his audience might care about, be bored by, take offense at, and so on.  While he can go on for a very long time if he wants (and, admittedly, that’s an envelope I’m always pushing), he’s got to keep attention.  Most of us aren’t John Wesley, able to keep an audience spellbound for hours at a crack.

And he’s constrained by the form.  Whether it’s the “no more than 3 points” rule of thumb, “don’t introduce too many big words,” etc, etc., there are rules.

Even more importantly, the lecture constrains the audience’s thinking paths.   It doesn’t allow them to just immediately horn in with their favorite pet peeves and prejudgings.  They can turn the lecturer off if they wish, but if they’re going to use the information he’s transmitting, they’re going to use it in a focused way.   And so any conversations that ensure, being more focused, are likely to go deeper.

Back when I was deep in my dissertation research I read a lot of 19th-century Parliamentary debate from the pages of Hansard.  I also read a lot of Parliamentary speeches that would be repeated, more or less verbatim, in the pages of newspapers and political pamphlets, and read by a very big proportion of the British population.

Don’t get me wrong — there was no shortage of “tabloid journalism” back then, and it was great fun reading it, too, as part of my research.  But one thing that seems to have been lost between then and now is that kind of deep engagement with ideas across not just the highly educated elites (which, compared to today’s America, were an extremely small fraction of the total population), but across most of the population.

And when we look closer at that deep engagement, it’s pretty clear.  It often took place via the exchange of lectures (long Parliamentary speeches, long pamphets).  Long lectures during which lecturers and audiences regularly listened to each other.

It has become de rigueur for “education experts,” both inside and outside the academy, to speak of the formal lecture as passé, outdated, or pedagogically unsound.

Wrong again.

The problem is not the lecture form, it is the quality of the lectures made.  To be blunt, most of us are pretty poor lecturers.  Because, we’re not really all that interested in listening.  If we’re speaking politically, we’re not seeking consensus (even when we say we are), we’re seeking to win.  If we’re speaking pedagogically, we’re not seeking to learn together (even when we say we are), we’re trying to justify our status as Expert and/or get our students to think like us.  Even if we talk about what we are doing, as political speakers or as teachers, as part of an ongoing conversation, we aren’t anywhere near as serious about engendering conversation as we are about having ourselves heard.

Now that the conventions are done, we’ll soon be treated to a round of presidential and vice-presidential “debates”.  Sorry, but I’ll have to give them a miss as I have done for several leap years running now.  As tabloid journalism goes, I have no doubt they’ll be excellent theater, that the good side will say things worth cheering about and the bad side will say things worthy of scorn.   And if tabloid politics is what you enjoy, that’s fine.

But for me, tabloid  politics has very little value save as an psychological escape from the grimmer annoyances of my daily life.  And I find that Steven Seagal movies or space opera science fiction or Green Bay Packer football games are all much better routes for that kind of escape.  So,  John and Sarah and Barack and Joe, feel free to do what you are going to do.  But I’m going to take a pass.

I don’t see myself deciding who to vote for based on what any of you are going to be saying in any of those debates any more than I’m going to pay any serious attention to your junk mail or your 30-second spots in prime time.

Contrary to the received view tabloids like CNN, Fox, or PBS, really good speakers today aren’t to be found in prime time giving convention speeches in football stadiums, or tossing bon mots on debating stages, or ensuring their “speeches” get included in the pages of the Congressional record.   The really good speakers, the ones who are truly part of an ongoing conversation, the ones worth listening to, are to be found elsewhere.

Barack, Joe, John, Sarah, I find this sad, but the truth is, my vote in November is probably going to be based only infinitesimally upon what you might say between now and then.  Because I suspect not much of what you are going to say is going to be inspiring of either thought or conversation, merely to appeal to my existing prejudices.

And, thank you very much, I’m well aware of what my prejudices are.  I’ve got better things to be doing between now and then than waste time with your speechifying between now and then, with the political spin that so concern your handlers, with the pontificating that the mainstream media is going to be doing.

If something is going to change my mind, if something is going to make me confront those prejudices of mine, it isn’t going to be speechifying and spin and pontification that’ll do it.  It’s going to be good lectures.  The kind that gets me involved in deep conversation and deep thinking.

The kind that happens, if it happens at all today, away from the network cameras, mostly on blogs and some YouTube videos.  The good ones, that is; not the ones that your political and PR hacks came up with for you as part of your respective strategies to make-sure-we-keep-up-with-the-Internet-generation.

I’m no more going to make my decision based on Internet tabloid journalism of the variety than I am going to make it based on the broadcast tabloid journalism of CNN.  I have no doubt that CNN and the others in the tabloids are going to help me see who is a good speaker and who is not, but frankly, I’m more interested in which of you has it in you to be a good lecturer.  Because that, not your ability to orate and inspire, tells me a lot more about your ability to listen and converse.

No, I’m unlikely to be joining you on or very often either.  Because I don’t expect much good lecturing in the posts and comments of your blogs.

No, I’m going to be spending my “politics” time between now and then with the real conversations of the blogosphere.  The ones with a PageRank between 0 and 2 rather than a PageRank of 7.   I’m going to reading a lot of lectures and trying to make one or two good ones of my own.

Even though I’m certain you aren’t going to be bothered to contribute much to those conversation yourselves.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but I think it’s come to this:  if you’re deciding whether to vote for someone for President or not, one of the poorest sources of information about their fitness to lead is the words they utter during the campaign.

So, Barack … John … I guess you’re safe to delete me from your intended audience until the speech you make sometime late on the evening of November November.

I doubt I’ll be tuned in to what you are saying.

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts