13 communication and life tips that children teach us
Upcoming presentations

The need for connection & engagement in education

Sleep_lecture Anyone who wants to make better presentations should be interested in how people learn. If you are interested in how people learn, you are obviously interested in education. And if you are interested in education, you surely have strong opinions about schools and other institutions of formal instruction and learning. As Sir Ken Robinson said in his first TED talk a few years ago, education is one of those things like religion and money that people have very strong opinions about. Few people think that the formal education systems around the world are perfect. In fact, virtually everyone realizes that changes — even massive paradigm shifts — are needed. As scientists and other specialists learn more about how our brains work, for example, many of the traditional instructional methods used for the past 100 years (or more) seem to be out of kilter with how human beings really pay attention, engage, and actually learn something. From time to time, I will continue to share presentations and talks that deal with education and learning.

"School sucks"
Large_hall Please set aside 30 minutes sometime to watch this talk by American Physicist Dr. Tae. The professor touches on many things you already know about the short comings of modern formal education, but it is provocative enough that I am sure you will find it worthy of your time. There are many points that Dr. Tae makes that deserve a lot more discussion than a 30-minute presentation allows. I agree with much of what Dr. Tae says here, but what I really am in agreement with is his utter incredulity concerning the continuation of the old one-way large lecture hall. The massive lecture rooms are not designed to produce an ideal learning situation but rather to get a great amount of people through the material on a large scale. In the presentation Dr. Tae touches on the depersonalized nature of the large lecture hall with the "tiny professor somewhere down there" in front going through the material but without engagement or connection with the students. If one of the goals of education is to "have a lively exchange of ideas," the depersonalized one-way lecture seems to be an outdated method for stimulating this exchange. Watch the presentation below or in three parts on YouTube.

Dr. Tae — Building A New Culture Of Teaching And Learning from Dr. Tae on Vimeo.

Do they just sit there?
Sit_there Dr. Tae tells an amusing story of one of his colleagues who was giving his daughter a tour of the physics department one day. As they stumbled upon a physics class the 8-year old daughter said to her father the physics professor, "Daddy, what are those people doing?" The father replied that they were studying physics. "Do thy just sit there?" she replied. Yep, they just sit there. It seems even an 8-year old girl can see that "just sitting there" seems like an odd way to learn something.

Get them doing something
In the presentation Dr. Tae mentions how he scraps the traditional lecture format and gets students to work together on problems. As much as possible, I try to do they same, however, in large lecture halls this can be challenging. Still, it is possible even given the constraints of the lecture hall to engage the audience and have them engage with each other.

Above: Although I am speaking in front of nearly 300 students in a large hall in Japan, I still have them get up and *do* something relevant from time to time. (This picture is from page 157 of the Naked Presenter book.)


Above: The typical lecture hall like this in Japan with chairs and tables which can not be moved does not lend itself to engagement (I took this photo before the seminar). I set up my computer away from the lectern on the elevated podium and came down closer to the students. While not ideal, it at least removed some of the barriers and we did our best to do some group work as well in spite of the rigid set up. I further attempted to remove barriers by often walking into the audience, especially during the short activities.


Pz_seminar Seminar_japan
In the seminars I hold around the world the set up is usually like something above (in Tokyo) and the participants are often doing and discussing, not just listening and watching.

Semi  Semi2
These photos are from yesterday's 4-hour seminar at the Kyoto Institute of Technology

The need for participation, compassion, & community in the classroom (and lecture hall)



Always interested in your curated thoughts here Garr - thank you.

Your post highlights the need to consider the learning spaces we find themselves in - as a speaker plus trainer I'm often finding myself moving tables and chairs around constantly to create those interactive and 'doing' environments.

To extend the discourse further, you might be interested in my post on 'social school design' which went live days ago:



Account Deleted

Unfortunately, college professors aren't taught how to be teachers. They perpetuate the methods they had seen in their college classes. It would be novel to see professors taking a course in how-to teach in college.

Mike Sporer

Your words are spot-on, Garr! I see an example of interactive teaching in math classes at the Tech school where I work. Every class has interactive elements, and ths students learn.


Joel, without speaking for all universities in the world I can say that in large parts of Europe they are. The amount is limited though, in total it might be half a semester of a "full time" course (~200 hours). An obvious problem with this is that when it comes to teaching there seems to be the pedagogics researchers (who teach the pedagogics courses) in one camp and the neuroscientists (and others who know a lot about the brain) in the other. You also need a teaching statement or a teaching portfolio when you apply for tenure track jobs. This forces you to reflect on your methods of teaching, but it's not anywhere near enough.

I think the bottom line of the problem is that tenure is granted on research success, and all the time you spend on improving your teaching is time you don't spend on writing papers or grant applications.


In my county, Germany, many university teachers are professors and they concentrated on celebrating research rather than education when they are speaking in front of the students.
Unfortunately, ...


Dear Garr, your post made me remember that in the fifties & sixties a great italian designer, architect and artist, Bruno Munari, was seeding the world with these same theories about learning trough doing (and much more). He had a special affinity with japanese aestetic and zen spirit, and created in Tokio a lab dedicated to children, "Komoro no shiro". I'll be very grateful if you would consider to dedicate a post to B.Munari and his work, many thanks in advance. See you soon in Milan!


I think I've only seen one person doing this in an academic setting and it drove me nuts until I realized how much I was learning. Knowledge doesn't make someone a teacher.

Love your posts. They make me think.

Chris Santos

Interesting video...or Keynote presentation. One thing I'll say, being a teacher - "great" is subjective so I won't add it! : ) There are many content qualified people who should never get near students, and there are many certified teachers who should never get near (secondary) content. Certification programs aren't designed to teach content, but rather to provide basics on how to teach, and even then, most of the "stuff" teachers learn are on the job. I had many professors who were lecturers...in my MA program, I had professors who were more concerned with grammar and citations than actual content.

Teaching is a profession where 50% quit before their 5th year. Imagine places like Apple, Microsoft, or Google where half the employees quit because they are dissatisfied with the working conditions.


As a lecturer in a Malaysian public university, I agree completely with your post.

When I started teaching, I reflected why I did not learn much as a student; then I changed my approach and broke away from the usual lecture method -- and students like my class (sorry, I do not mean to honk my own horn). Unfortunately, MOST lecturers still stick to lecturing. In fact, many of them equate reading Powerpoint slides as teaching!

In relation to what Raccet from Germany posted above, universities here (with the full support of the higher education ministry) focus too much on research and not on educating students. The mantra is "students come to the university to learn, not to be taught" and that's really depressing because in education, the concept of apprenticeship is very important.


Great post, I believe Gamification of Education is one possible solution that wasn't mentioned but fits perfectly with "connecting and engaging". We're trying to start an active discussion around this topic on the Gamification Encyclopedia at http://gamification.org , an open wiki for the world to discuss and collaborate on the topic of how to properly apply game design and game mechanics to non-games.


I couldn't agree more. How can we move away from this near zero effective method?


Great subject, but one that can be very very hard to tackle. I think a lot of college professors like myself would like to teach in different ways, but are instead encouraged to keep enrollment high and other measures (e.g. remote learning over video links) that increase the distance between the student and the professor and decrease the ability to get students to interact more. The other 800 lb gorilla in the room is that we have become a culture of very rigid benchmarks that determine success and who we hire (test scores, GPA's). We have to not only come up with better ways to teach, but also discuss how to evaluate the learning in better ways.

The work your ass off dictum is great and one that I see many new science graduate students having to pick up so they understand just how much of graduate learning is self taught and originates from 100's-1000's of mistakes they have to make. I'm always reminded by the great slogan of the Wieden & Kennedy ad agency: Fail Harder!


I totally disagree with your perspective. Children need to go to school to study by esteemed and experienced teachers, which is more effective than being taught by their parents!



It's because everything is money-driven nowadays. When profit is the objective of universities and schools, education and learning takes the backseat; sometimes, they get thrown out of the car completely ;-)

Michael Eury

Great post Garr! Traditional lecture theatres were great when the only way to hear from the expert was to load up a large room and let him speak. We're past that now, we can all find the basic information any time and any place we like. So, if learners are still to gather in rooms then the best thing they can do is to talk to each other, question their understanding and if there is an 'expert' on site she can tailor her responses appropriately.


great post. We should rally round the standard: "Building a New Culture of Teaching and Learning"

Jody Urquhart

When i am at a conference speaking- I notice no matter how much I practice and rehearse specific concepts, it's the interaction that engages the crowd the most.

I am always looking for ways to briefly( because of time in a plenary session) involve people in a presentation, everything from rhetorical questions, demonstration,turn and discuss with your partner.... always looking for ideas and discussion on this.

The plenary session is the "stand and deliver" lecture format, the seating can be more condusive to learning with round table, etc and it does make a big difference.


"If you want to ruin anything make it more like school" ~ Dr Tae

Warwick John Fahy

I have a question: why nobody is changing the education system?

In China, the notorious education system is called "feeding duck" style, which vividly refers to the one-way high intensity memorising way of teaching. Teachers teach with a unique style that bore students. But instead of blaming teachers, students are to blame for not paying attention in the class.

Maybe a simple and quick solution is to teach all teachers some interactive presentation skills and shift the paradigm that teachers know everything. Let the students explore the unknown rather be told of everything.

I have written several blogs about the new digital natives. View from here: http://www.oneminutepresenter.com/category/digital-natives/

Greg Corey

Warwick, I think you're spot on. Often we blame the students for their lack of interest and interactivity in the class - whereas it's the responsibility of teachers and schools to be providing not just lessons that are stimulating but also physical environments that encourage interaction. Especially at the primary and secondary school levels where we make our students attend.

Just today I was talking with some staff and alumni from a school in the U.S. that doesn't follow the typical teacher at the front/students in rows format. Instead they have small classes of 8 with the students seated at a round table. Students lead the discuss, show how they solved a particular math problem etc. with the teacher acting as guide. By all reports it's incredibly effective at not just engaging the students but also helping them retain the necessary take away points.

Maybe we should focus as much on helping students be better presenters.

Berlin Asong

The central theme of Garr's post captures my works against the traditional lecture-style of knowledge delivery fostered by colleges and universities worldwide. Schools have failed to innovate their knowledge-delivery processes despite the wealth of scientific insights how our brains acquire, process, retain and retrieve learning.

Longtime ago, I come across this video on YouTube: "Good vs. Great Teaching: Are the best teachers born or made?"; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOZgkmsyQnc. Before a class of aspiring teachers, Prof. Shannon Kincaid, advises what makes an educator a great teacher. It's worth watching; and drives home Dr. Tae's message.

Keith Davis

I like the contrast...
Just sit there versus getting involved.

Linking this back to Public Speaking I guess that the idea is to get the audience involved or at least make them feel that they are involved.
In a word "Rapport".

Jeff Gilbert

Garr. Thank you for posting this article, and thank you to Dr. Tae for producing the great video. I am a solar energy trainer and I am passionate about teaching and empowering students. To this end I will be buying your book "Presentation Zen" and taking my courses to the next level.
Jeff Gilbert
Azimuth Solar Training LLC
[email protected]

The comments to this entry are closed.