A Candle in the Dark

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The Gutenberg Method

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Some of you would would be well acquainted with that “origin of species” of organic chemistry, aptly titled Organic Chemistry, authored by Morrision and Boyd.

Now, I recently came across this fascinating article by professor Robert T. Morrison titled The Lecture System in Teaching Science. A short excerpt,

Meanwhile, back at the classroom, the lecture is drawing to a close. Just as the bell rings, the lecturer, if he’s a really smooth operator, comes to the end of a sentence, a paragraph, a nice neat unit. He lays down his last piece of chalk — he knows exactly how many pieces the lecture will take — picks up his precious lecture notes, and goes out. The students, tired but happy, rise up and follow after him. Their heads are empty, but their notebooks are full. Their necks are a little tired; it’s been like a sort of vertical tennis match: board, notebook, board, notebook. But other than that, everything is all right. Any student will tell you, “I never had any trouble with the course until the first examination.” There hasn’t been a chance to ask any questions, but that’s all right; they haven’t any questions to ask, anyhow. They’ve been so busy writing hey haven’t had time to think about what was being said; it ran in their ears and out their pencils.

What I have just described is perhaps exaggerated, but not much. You wonder how on earth such a system ever arose because you know very well that nobody in his right mind would invent a system like this today. What I’ve heard, and I imagine that this is correct, is that it started a very long time ago, when books were rare and very expensive, and the only way to transmit information was for the teacher, who knew, to tell the students, who did not yet know. And they would write it all down and take it away with them, like a bunch of scribes. Remember, scribes were very big in the Middle Ages

What does the Gutenberg Method involve? Simply this. You assign the students portions of the textbook to study before they come to class. When they come into the classroom, they are already acquainted with the material. You don’t waste your time, and theirs, outlining the course. You don’t waste time telling them that butyric acid smells like rancid butter, and that valeric acid smells like old socks, and other difficult intellectual concepts. The textbook has taken all that drudgery off your hands. You don’t waste your time doing what Frank Lambert calls “presenting a boardful of elegantly organized material with beautiful answers to questions that the students have not asked.”

So, what do you think? Personally, I feel that this is a very nice idea and a good way to spend class hours, rather than “copying” what’s being said onto a notebook.

Morrison, R.T. 1986. “The Lecture System in Teaching Science,”


Written by parseval

October 16, 2007 at 6:48 pm

Posted in education, science

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