Why One Sometimes Learns a Lot in a Lecture?

     An issue that has to be dealt with directly when discussing interactive teaching is the question of why one sometimes learns a lot in a lecture. We feel that cognitive science, constructivism, as well as our current work, provide some obvious answers to this question.
     Consider for a moment the great orators of history, how they moved nations, brought armies to the battlefield, and shaped situations to their will. Closer to our own experience is the at least one great teacher that has influenced and shaped our individual lives. And, we probably can remember how we were held spellbound by such a teacher as they reached into our inner selves and made connections that changed our perspectives. Or, consider plays, theater, and movies, where we sit absorbed for hours, our attention riveted on the people and the story. These are ubiquitous events and they are not that different from each other from a cognitive science perspective.
      The common elements between these events and great lectures are what they do to the audience, and more specifically, to individuals within the audience. Let's look at the process in detail. The movie with a story that absorbs us and touches our emotions, does not do that directly. In fact, it does not even do it indirectly. It is actually us that do it to ourselves. The movie is just a piece of celluloid, it is our brains that interpret the images and sounds and "make sense" of them. It is the evolving "sense" of the story within our minds that affects our sensibilities, assaults or conforms with our principles, and leads us to play "what if" games as though we were in the story ourselves.
      That is, the story itself is new information, and we are busily engaged for one and a half hours, in fitting it into information, knowledge structures, concepts, rules, ideas, and nuances that we already possess within our brains. In this sense, it is clearly untrue to claim that we are not interacting with the story. We demonstrably are interacting with it, and you have only to look at the teary faces emerging from a popcorn reeking movie hall, after a powerful but sad drama to know that it is not the celluloid that did it. Similarly, it is not the great orator or teacher who reaches down inside our innermost selves and turns certain switches. It is we who do it ourselves in response to the information, questions, or conclusions presented (however subtly) by that person.
      Good lectures work in just the same way as movies, theater, or other presentations, and obviously people learn a great deal in them. It would be ridiculous to pretend otherwise, just as it would be the height of folly to try to make every public presentation interactive. Think of interactive preaching, interactive presentations of research results, or an interactive State of the Union address by the President. But, these examples may be as inappropriate as passive lectures on introductory physics! Doubly so perhaps, because the attention level of the world is changing. At the end of the 20th century, people are used to having their attention sought and beguiled by multi-million dollar budgets per minute. And these become the de-facto standards for public presentations which include teaching. It is hard to give a great physics lecture on Newtonian mechanics to live up to this standard. Fortunately, interactive teaching presents a better and more productive alternative!


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