Give Me a Break

Michael Metzger

We enjoy breaks more than the lectures.

David Thornburg says conferences may feature great speakers, but within a day or two, people begin staying out in the hall talking to peers. These breaks are “meeting a need,” he writes. They represent the best learning spaces. Lectures less so.

“Of all the places I remember from my childhood, school was the most depressing,” writes David Thornburg, an educational consultant. His dismal assessment crystallized at a National Academy of Sciences conference. “Every presenter at the conference was an absolutely breathtaking speaker. But a couple days in, I noticed a lot of people were getting up for breaks. They stayed out in the hall talking to peers. It was meeting a need. That night, I came up with the idea of different learning spaces.”1

Thornburg outlines four learning models: lecture-based, social learning, quiet reflection, and “life” – where ideas are tested. They’re detailed in his new book, From The Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments. Of the four, research indicates lectures are the least effective learning space. Hands-on problem solving – testing ideas in real life – is best. Thornburg likens this to a holodeck.

The science-fiction holodeck came from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was an empty room that could become a whole simulation of anything. Thornburg helps schools create “educational holodecks.” Kids come into the room “to go on a mission” of solving real-life problems. Success is measured by whether kids stay after a problem after the course is completed. Studies indicate they do.

Lectures aren’t nearly as effective. Thornburg likes to show a painting of a classroom by Laurentius de Voltolina from 1350 depicting a lecture that’s not working. Students are talking to each other or falling asleep while the teacher drones on. The irony is we know lecturing is ineffective but keep doing it. History tells us why.

The 1300s marks the beginning of the Renaissance, a cultural movement that spanned the period roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy. It was a rediscovery, or rebirth, of classical Greek and Arabic manuscripts on natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics. The printing press hadn’t been developed, so these texts couldn’t be widely read. Educators read the texts to students via lecture, the word coming from the Latin “to read.” Students dutifully took notes (or fell asleep).

A lecture, however, does not represent a rebirth of the classical Greek method of education. “Philosophers in the age of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum practiced their craft;” writes Benjamin Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, “they did not merely study it.”2 Those who practice a craft are called practitioners. By dint of hands-on experience, practitioners gain expertise, becoming experts. They have knowledge and authority. This is the very sequence described in scripture.

In Genesis 4:1, we read “Adam knew Eve.” While he initially eyeballed Eve, scripture describes Adam as gaining knowledge after the couple had felt their way along and consummated their sexual union. Hands-on experience gave them knowledge and authority. Theorizing didn’t. In fact, theorizing didn’t develop until the Enlightenment.

In 1637, René Descartes enunciated a new baseline for expertise: “I think, therefore I am.” He believed knowledge was gained primarily by thinking, or theorizing, a term derived from the Greek theoria, “to look at.” Over time, Enlightenment thinkers reinforced this dichotomy “between theory and practice,” writes Lesslie Newbigin.3 Theorists became the new experts by merely observing things, writing papers, and delivering lectures. Practitioners were perceived as less knowledgeable. They took notes.

This accounts for conferees (mostly practitioner types) getting more out of breaks than lectures. Wrestling with the complexities and paradoxes of real-life problems, they sense theorists have little hands-on experience. Bored, a conference’s empty halls become a simulation of a skunk works, or innovation lab, where practitioners connect with peers. They act like the educational holodecks that Thornburg helps establish.

The Bible says “Jesus taught as one having authority, not as the scribes” (Mt. 7:29). The scribes loved to teach but they had no dirt under their fingernails. They had no authority. Jesus’ expertise derived from his divinity as well as his deeds. He practiced before he preached, “growing in wisdom and stature” (Lk. 2:52). He had authority.

The Economist reports that most books on innovation are “rubbish” – except for one. The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, written by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, explains why problem-solving innovation labs are the best learning spaces.4 Innovation labs are essentially holodecks – and this explains why knowledgeable people, given the choice, generally opt for taking a break rather than listening to a lecture.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Hope Reese, “Lectures Didn’t Work in 1350 – and They Still Don’t Work Today,” The Atlantic Online, November 15, 2013.
2 Benjamin Balint, “What is Ancient Philosophy?” First Things, December 2002, Number 128.
3 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 23.
4 “The innovation machine” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.


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  1. Stimulating as usual Mike. My observation is that lecturing is merely the transmission of information. This differs from data transfer and the teaching of knowledge, understanding and wisdom.Each requiring digestion and depth.
    By implication :-
    Locations are a ledge, stand and domain.
    Points of reference are needed to reflect the full coverage. Wisdom in action being the essence of full grasp.

  2. Is not true that the lecture itself can plant the seed for the overflow for break discussions. Inevitably when 20 mins is seen as an optimum reception time, a lecture on average will provide 200% of overload. Lecturing is one way traffic. Learning involves individual dialogue. Apprenticeship facilitates wisdom, lecturing facilitates mass distribution of information. Seminars and tutorials facilitate the digestion.

  3. This is why the generalization that “A” students become teachers and “B” students become practitioners has some merit. For the minority with whom the lecture methodology resonates, they continue to further that system.

    I did not do well in school, until I was in business school utilizing the cohort method. Collaboration and hands-on work were critical to academic success in that environment where a teacher’s role is more important as a facilitator then as a lecturer.

  4. Barnabas and Hank:

    True, true, true. As Sir Ken Robinson puts it, the point of a college education today is to create tomorrow’s college professors. Lectures work well for them. For the rest of the us – the 99 percent – we’re left with sheafs of notes that we pitch and textbooks we try to sell after a course is complete.

  5. Continued gratitude for your leadership.

    Reading about “breaks” reminds me of growing up in church as a teenage youth when we would find reasons to leave the service to congregate outside on the steps. It was meeting a need.

  6. Percolating many, many ideas after a semester teaching philosophy at a community college to students who decidedly do NOT wish to endure lectures. . . . This framework sparks some new ideas! And I have some new reading on my reading list.

  7. Some of the most powerful learning moments in my life came from great lectures in college or sermons. They deeply impacted my life. If we consider a book as a very long lecture–information being passed in one direction–then I’d have to say that great books (including the Bible) continue to have a very powerful impact on my life. And then there’s excellent essays like yours, Mike, which are like small mini-lectures (Latin:
    “to read”), all of which I thoroughly enjoy and learn from. I’m all for problem solving classrooms, but it seems they might work well hand-in-hand with quality lectures.

  8. Glenn:

    It’s not an either/or argument. The evidence is simply that lectures are less effective than holodecks (or innovation labs).

  9. Greetings Mike – hope you had a great Thanksgiving and start of Advent.

    Judy and I subscribe to the infrequent 5 minute “info burst” from us and then right back to the group for their real world application. We also will have small groups do their own research on a variety of topics, report to the whole group and then draw applications to the purpose for meeting in the first place. We call this a “self teach”.

    There are many good ways to accelerate decision making and problem solving and promote experiential learning – learning by doing. We are thankful that our grad school professors were Practitioners too.

    p.s. Allowing ample time for meals can also be very constructive – with or without “assignments”.

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