Using Props in Teaching and Lecturing

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This morning I read about some motivational speaker who used rubber chickens in his presentations! I tried to imagine how I could work a rubber chicken into my lecture this coming Friday in Vernon, British Coumbia. My topic is “Back to Basics: The Genealogy Research Process” — absolutely nothing to do with poultry but the idea is interesting.How can you use props in teaching?

There are actually people out there in the world of business seminars who use finger puppets to teach adults. Sounds like fun. The Right Hand finger puppet teaches, and the left hand finger puppet asks the dumb questions that need to be asked.

What other props can you use. As a genealogy librarian I find myself using books as props. I pick light ones so its easier on my wrists. In several lectures I seem to need to show people Elizabeth Shown Mills book, Evidence, Analysis & Citation (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1997) and recently I started using The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Ancestry, 2001) But never a rubber chicken. I am considering printing up a bunch of buttons saying “I’m Smarter than Ken” to hand out to those people who teach me something new at my lectures and seminars.

I suspect that real educational experts will detect two or three different purposes for props in teaching. Maybe their list would look like this.
1. To demonstrate visually what is being described in words
2. To break up the monotony of the lecture format
3. To add humor to reinforce a teaching point.
4. To amuse and entertain
5. To focus learners on an concrete, rather than abstract concept
6. To represent an abstract concept in a concrete way ( slightly different than 5)

Let me explain what I mean in 5 and 6.
In point 5 I see a teacher bringing up the web page for a library catalog and demonstrating how to search for books on a specific topic.
In point 6 I see a lecturer who has referred to an oral history interview previously in a discussion, holding up an audio tape for the audience to see and referring to it as the interview. It becomes a concrete manifestion of the abstract idea of an interview.

In teaching we talk about object lessons. During my years in New Zealand back in the late 60sI worked for a short time with young man from California. Raymond Cook used object lessons all the time in training and encouraging people he worked with. His lessons were always like point 6, but fun. I recall one where he was teaching us about focus and persistance and gave each of the five of us one of those hand help games where you tilt the thing and roll a tiny ball around until it gets in the correct hole, then proceed with the next, all the while keeping the first still in its hole. Drove me nuts. It takes patience. Ray was teaching us.

Can these things be applied to teaching/ lecturing in genealogy. Sure. And I love to hear the use of props — even a rubber chicken– you have observed in genealogy classes and lectures.

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3 responses to “Using Props in Teaching and Lecturing

  1. Some interesting thoughts here Ken. I teach psychology at University here in the UK, and I also do a bit of teaching new teachers how to teach. I think the important issue about props is that they act as a focus. They can point students to the areas and issues that we want them to concentrate on. Talk alone is only words. Words come and then they’re gone. But a good prop, a good image is something that seems to shape ideas and somehow has a permanence in memory; as you said – giving a concrete representation of the abstract. The key to good “propping” (I think) is appropriateness. Today I see many colleagues embracing the all powerful PowerPoint presentation as a key feature in their teaching. And I’ve got nothing against that, but I see many classes where getting a good set of interesting images together seems to be the target rather than shaping the learning experience of the students. I have been to a colleague’s lecture recently which used almost 60 slides for a 45 minute talk, and most of the slides were at best tangential to the words, and seemed to tell a different story. Students spent most of the time trying to work out which of the competing narratives was more interesting, and failed to grasp the point of either.

  2. I’m an archivist who teaches workshops on how to properly care for photographs. My favorite prop is something I use to illustrate how fragile digital is as a storage medium…and how digital can fail totally, completely, catastrophically. I accidentally killed our external hard drive when I knocked it off a table. (It only had backup files on it, so I didn’t lose anything but the money I spent to buy it.) During class I plug it in and turn it on. It makes a terrible noise that I hope students remember for a long, long time.

  3. I would include video as part of an engaging genealogy presentation. With so much material personal history material available free at the click of a button (e.g. rootstelevision.com) it’s easy to vary the pace and create case studies.

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