How do you feel when you hear the word ‘lecture’? How do you imagine your students feel? Sometimes, we hope, inspired and enthused; quite often, though, is it more likely that they feel suspicious and wary?
And yet the lecture or talk is such an effective means of communicating a message to a large audience with relative clarity and speed. We want students, across the full age-range of our school, to enjoy and appreciate lectures. And we already have lots of successful and well-attended talks.
However, we also want the idea of listening to a talk to be sometimes as exciting a night out as a concert or musical.
So, in the spirit of leveraging intellectual aspiration and increasing excitement about the world of ideas, we’ve devised a programme of evening events each featuring 4 micro-lectures, each exactly 10 minutes long. We were partly driven by the conviction that many much longer lectures could be delivered in 10 minutes with more careful planning and focused consideration of purpose and audience; partly, by the attraction of the concise and precise. The brief for the speakers is simple: take one central intellectual idea and play around with it for 10 minutes.
Our inspirations will be pretty obvious to most of you; however, we wanted to develop a powerful in-house brand that was personal to Wellington. And in searching for that brand we stumbled upon this visual pun, which has rather stuck: WellingTEN.
It was also important, we thought, that each evening of talks should include a range of speakers and a range of topics. We brought in our visiting philosopher and astronomer but we also put teachers – from all departments – and, latterly, students up on the stage as well. All have risen to the challenge most impressively. It’s been competitive in the very best ways; and it’s amazing how many of our teachers and students want to put themselves on the spot and deliver one of these micro-lectures.
So far we’ve listened to talks as diverse as: The most frustrating discovery in the history of Science; The fourth dimension; Crossed out: the importance of writing wrongs; Philosophy shopping: an antidote to economic gloom; Fifty shades of frivolity; Being green – it’s black and white; Blinded by sight: sometimes not seeing is believing; Pockets of silence: How does Art communicate?; There’s no such thing as a dirty book, it’s just the way you read it: Ovid and the Poetry of Exile; Redefining leadership for social change; The apple that changed the world; Euphemism: Why we hardly ever say what we really mean.
The sparky title is another aspect of our marketing of the evening. As is the overall timing. All out, all over in less than an hour. It’s important to be concise and precise. The evenings are also genuinely inter-disciplinary.
What about the practicalities? Well, so far, we’ve:
- run the events on a Friday evening from 7.30 – 8.30 in our theatre
- had music playing in the auditorium as the audience arrives
- taken time with the set (as you can hopefully see from the photos)
- wired the speakers up with head-mounted microphones
- used a large digital countdown timer in front of the lectern which changes from green to amber to red for the last minute
- ensured the evening is hosted by a charismatic student who fields one or two questions at the end of each talk
- worked carefully on the branding (and one of our students has made a wonderful video ident)
Is the 10-minute rule a gimmick? Yes, and no. It certainly adds a ‘Countdown’ quality to the event. However, the intellectual discipline required to bring a considered argument in on time – to the second – is not to be dismissed lightly. One or two have argued that the timer is a distraction; we’ve been amazed, though, at how articulately the students are able to summarize the theses of these talks (especially in comparison with how much they remember from more traditional lecture formats).
The audiences have loved the shows. We’ve put students, visiting experts and teachers on stage with an equal billing and this has been a great success.
We set out to make lectures more fun, to associate an exciting night out with being intellectually stimulated in a number of different disciplines. After a year of WellingTENs, how do we think we’re doing? Judging by the audience numbers and their feedback: remarkably well. We think we might just have stumbled upon a great formula.