Thinking Differently About Lectures: Sandel’s Justice Lecture at Harvard

What I am going to talk about has absolutely no practical value. Once you accept that fact it allows you to have a more open view of things.
Paul Dietz, in introduction to a lecture in algorithms class

I’m currently participating in a course about teaching at the university level. During the course today, participants referred to the limited interaction that is possible in lectures (compared to seminars). It reminded me of the “Justice” lectures by Michael Sandel at Harvard and an old blog posting I wrote in another (currently offline) blog. I find Sandel’s “presentation” style very inspiring (albeit sometimes taxing) and a creative solution for dealing with large classes. It’s a little bit off-topic for this blog, but I would relate it to conveying ideas to large audiences.

Here’s his first lecture as an example, with an description about his style below:

Sandel asks the question “What’s the right thing to do?” and uses contemporary examples to illustrate different moral positions by philosophers like Bentham, Mill, Kant, Aristotle, Rawls. His low-key “presentation style” (a mixture of lecturing and highly-but-indirectly structured discussion) is remarkable.

After watching the twelve episodes and another presentation to the same topic I found the following attributes to be very interesting:

Well-Timed speech

He speaks slowly and makes pauses in the right moments. This gives students time to think about the sentences. He also repeats what students have said in his own words, which gives him and others time to think about it.

Suiting movements

Similar to his low-key speech he walks around slowly when he is not behind the lectern. This gives him some dynamic but is in accordance to the topic of the course.

Shows everyday relevance of the issues

He continuously makes connections to every day life and makes clear what is at stake in philosophy. This is necessary to allow participation because students can imagine themselves in these situations and makes the philosophical positions relevant and concrete instead of purely abstract. He continuously links concrete examples to abstract positions and vice versa, allowing students to see it in abstract, general and concrete, special cases.

Encourages participation

There are several strategies used to encourage participation:

  • He makes it clear that the topics can be discussed by the students. For example, in the first lecture when he dismisses skepticism and throughout the course when he lets the students challenge their positions. He also mentions when philosophers give strange reasons and shows them that they can be criticized.
  • He asks for the names of the contributors and mentions them when he refers to the same arguments. This brings the names of the students in the same line as the philosophers they are analyzing and shows them that the philosophers can be criticized by them.
  • He asks them what they think personally, “how you would rule”, without having to resort to laws. When they say what others might think he returns them to their own opinion by asking: “But what do you think?” or by finding out via a quick vote.
  • He reinforces the students speaking by paraverbal signals (e.g., nods) and verbally (“right”, “yes”). He continuously gives the feedback that he understands what they say, but not necessarily that he agrees with their opinion. If a student has problems stating his opinion, he supports them.
  • He reinforces students for each contribution by thanking them and — in some cases — recognizing that their contribution was not easy because it dealt with difficult moral positions (like agreeing to eat a crew mate). For example, he uses sentences like “You did well. It’s a hard question.” or “Brave answer. Thank you.”. He also thanks them for questions (e.g., “interesting you should ask …”, “interesting suggestion”).
  • He also tells them when they divert from philosophers but tells them they might be right and the philosophers might be wrong. For example, in the presentation at Duke Sanford School: “That makes sense [pause] but it’s not Aristoteles reason.” “Argh” “That’s all right. You might be right and he might be wrong. We’ll see.” He also says when something is partially right (“reason is deserving but …”).
  • If there is a vote, he raises his hand every time which could be interpreted as voting for it and might encourage others to stand by their opinion and raise their hands. He also makes it clear that the vote is not just for fun (or so that we have done something “interactive”) but summarizes the results, often interprets what this means, and refers to it later in the lecture. Consequently, it actually makes sense for students to participate in the vote. He also notices who raised his hand in an issue and sometimes asks the person later.
  • He also refers the answers students give to other students who have brought a conflicting or similar point earlier (hence he is asking for the name of the person who speaks). While he is still monitoring the discussion and highly structures it, it leaves the students engaged in the discussion because it’s not “lecture – one question – one answer – lecture” but actually a kind of discussion among the students. It has the further beneficial effect that he does not criticize them himself (which would probably reduce further participation) but lets the students being criticized by their peers.
  • Even if a student completely smashes what he was aiming for, he takes it with humor, concedes the point and moves on (“interesting idea except that it wrecked the philosophical point”). It shows pretty clearly that students can participate even if they say something the lecturer does not like.

Minding the overall course of the discussion, lecture, course

The whole discussion serves the goal of the course (as it should) and is structured by him to achieve this goal.

  • While the students are encouraged to participate it is neither participation without consequence nor without direction. If a student mentions something he was aiming for he reinforces the direction (a “Good point. Who has another reason …” compared to an “Good. Who has an answer for …”). He also stops students immediately when they brought the point he was aiming at. If the discussion is not moving in the right direction, he asks specific questions to further sharpen the issue and lead to the points he was aiming at.
  • Students bring the philosophical points and he uses their positions to illustrate these points more formally. It looks like he has a roadmap in mind, but instead of driving on a superhighway from A to B he lets students explore the territory and gives (gentle) nudges to make sure they find the landmarks. This is especially noticeable when he moves the discussion on a meta level and describes how the discussion evolved and what it means in the context of the philosopher discussed.
  • He also connects the different lectures and gives a short recap what was doe the last time, including mentioning the results of votes or the positions of students he names. It is clear for the students that the course is going somewhere.
  • I think the main point he makes regarding his course is that philosophical questions can and should be discussed and not left to non-state organizations like churches. And he achieves this point well — he summarizes his opinion in the last presentation and shows the students that they have done so during the whole semester showing that it can be done, and should be done.

Keeps the discussion personally relevant but in a personal distance

Given that he makes the philosophical positions personally relevant he also has to make sure that students keep a certain emotional distance in the discussion (e.g., to avoid ad hominem arguments). This was very obvious when one student asked another whether he had ever engaged in masturbation. He intervened and asked her to make the point in the third person. But also in earlier discussions, e.g., when one student argued against Affirmative Action programs for Blacks but for Legacy Admissions to Harvard, he did not ask the student whether he himself was only accepted to Harvard due to Legacy Admission.

I think the only criticism regarding the lectures is that it becomes harder to follow when he is reading at the lectern. Standing freely in front of the students and arguing for certain points he does extremely well, but I have yet to see and hear a lecturer who can hold my attention while reading a text behind a lectern.

By the way, the technical quality of the videos is also remarkable, given that they were made for TV. The video is crystal clear (in HQ), the sound quality excellent, and the camera work professional and well framed/cut (although I would be very angry if a camera man would be filming my lecture notes). I think the only criticism I have regarding this point is that it looks too flashy (especially the teasers) — like a report you would see on TV (for which it was for). It might suggest that the lecture is “only” entertainment, something videos are likely to suggest (cf. Salomon, 1984). It actually helped me not to look on the screen too much.

All in all, very interesting, very stimulating and a good example that even formal education in philosophy does not have to be boring. You can find the lectures here:


Salomon, G. (1984). Television is “easy” and print is “tough”: The differential investment of mental effort in learning as a function of perceptions and attributions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(4), 647-658.


  1. Current conventional wisdom says college students can no longer learn from lectures, but this is just another in a long line of educational fads. I already have students objecting to so much group work (“I didn’t come here to listen to other students”) and many, many students who are sadder but wiser having tried the all-online route and realized it was not stimulating and didn’t keep them on pace. In contrast, a great lecture is an event and something a student never forgets. It simply takes more preparation, real knowledge, skill, and focus from both teacher and student than we devote to most things these days. Thus, I think lecturing’s about due for a wonderful comeback!

  2. Hoi Heather,

    I think that methods should always be in the service of clearly determined and articulated educational goal, and — if implemented correctly — the success of the method depends on the teacher-student interaction. Teachers can do a lot to help students, but they are not omnipotent, students have to do their part too. And no method is successful on its own — one reason why I like best practice in this regard, it enlarges your options by showing what can be done. Although I’d be interesting in an evaluation of his lecture — how much students actually learn beyond its being engaging.

    All the best


Comments are closed.