What IS Interactive Teaching?

by Dr. Louis Abrahamson, bE staff

The first thing to realize about interactive teaching is that it is NOT something new or mysterious. If you are a teacher and you ask questions in class, assign and check homework, or hold class or group discussions, then you already teach interactively. Basically then (in my book), interactive teaching is just giving students something to do, getting back what they have done, and then assimilating it yourself, so that you can decide what would be best to do next.

But, almost all teachers do these things, so is there more to it? To answer this question, one has to step away from teaching and think about learning. Over the last twenty years, the field of cognitive science has taught us a lot about how people learn. A central principle that has been generally accepted is that everything we learn, we "construct" for ourselves. That is, any outside agent is essentially powerless to have a direct effect on what we learn. If our brain does not do it itself, - that is, take in information, look for connections, interpret and make sense of it, - no outside force will have any effect. This does not mean that the effort has to be expressly voluntary and conscious on our parts. Our brains take-in information and operate continuously on many kinds of levels, only some of which are consciously directed. But, conscious or not, the important thing to understand is that it is our brains that are doing the learning, and that this process is only indirectly related to the teacher and the teaching.
For example, even the most lucid and brilliant exposition of a subject by a teacher in a lecture, may result in limited learning if the students' brains do not do the necessary work to process it. There are several possible causes why students' learning may fall short of expectations in such a situation. They may,

  • not understand a crucial concept partway into the lecture and so what follows is unintelligible,
  • be missing prior information or not have a good understanding of what went before, so the conceptual structures on which the lecture is based are absent,
  • lack the interest, motivation, or desire to expend the mental effort to follow the presentation, understand the arguments, make sense of the positions, and validate the inferences.

However, whatever the cause, without interacting with the students (in the simplest case by asking questions), a teacher has no way to know if his/her efforts to explain the topic were successful.
This brings me to the first of (what I believe are) three distinct reasons for interactive teaching. It is an attempt to see what actually exists in the brains of your students. This is the "summative" aspect. It is the easiest aspect to understand and it is well described in the literature. But, it is far from being the only perspective! The second reason is "formative", where the teacher aims through the assigned task to direct students' mental processing along an appropriate path in "concept-space". The intent is that, as students think through the issues necessary in traversing the path, the resulting mental construction that is developed in the student's head will possess those properties that the teacher is trying to teach. As Socrates discovered, a good question can accomplish this result better than, just telling the answer.

The third may be termed "motivational". Learning is hard work, and an injection of motivation at the right moment can make all the difference. One motivating factor provided by the interactive teacher is the requirement of a response to a live classroom task. This serves to jolt the student into action, to get his brain off the couch, so to speak. Additional more subtle and pleasant events follow immediately capitalizing on the momentum created by this initial burst. One of these is a result of our human social tendencies. When teachers ask students to work together in small groups to solve a problem, a discussion ensues that not only serves in itself to build more robust knowledge structures, but also to motivate. The anticipation of immediate feedback in the form of reaction from their peers, or from the teacher is a very strong motivator. If it is not embarrassing or threatening, students want to know desperately whether their understanding is progressing or just drifting aimlessly in concept space. Knowing that they are not allowed to drift too far off track provides tremendous energy to continue.


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