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Lecturing

Thus, for example, at the broadest and most obvious level, what makes a lecture

effective as a teaching tool is not its "coverage," how much information the lecturer is

able to squeeze into an hour and a half, but how interesting it is. Some lectures can

be so fascinating that the audience does not notice the passage of time; others can

be so dull that everyone is falling asleep after the first five minutes.

Some defenders of traditional lectures will admit that, yes, alas, some lecturers

are not particularly riveting; but one must not forget, they will add, that part of the

blame lies with the students. Students must make an effort to be interested as well.

Even the most brilliant speaker cannot get through to someone who is determined

to be bored; and one can hardly expect teachers to compete with the blandishments

of MTV. If students are not willing to make the effort to take an interest in the

lecturer's ideas, they should not be in the class — or, possibly, in the university at all.

And there is some truth to this. It is possible to block interest in a subject. But

there are some hard scientific realities behind students' interest in (and enhanced

ability to learn from) an exciting, enthusiastic lecture and instant rejection of a

boring, monotonous one:

1 Modulation of voice, gesture, posture. The brain is built to pay particular attention

to change, and to sink into a less focused and attentive state when things don't

change, or change is minimal. That is why we notice moving things against an

unchanging background; why our fingers constantly seek out a wound or

sunburn or other change in our skin, and our tongues constantly find their

way back to the hole where a tooth was recently pulled out. It is also why

lullabies put children (and sometimes parents) to sleep: melodies without

sudden changes in pitch, volume, or timbre are physiologically soporific. A

speaker who does not change her or his volume or pitch or rhythm, who

stands stock still and maintains a poker face, will similarly put listeners to

sleep. It is possible to fight this sleepiness, but extremely difficult; it is a

physiological function that is hard-wired into the human brain.

2 Personal enthusiasm, fervor, commitment. Due to the power of the brain's limbic

system to shape our thought and behavior, emotions are physiologically very

contagious. This "contagion" is very difficult to resist: when everyone is crying

or laughing, it requires enormous emotional energy to keep from doing the

same (see Robinson 1991: 5ff.). The rapid transfer of emotional states from

one body to another explains how attitudes, prejudices, taboos, fears, and the

like are passed on from generation to generation: children pick them up from

their parents, often without the mediation of words. It explains how the mood

of a whole group of people can shift almost instantaneously. It also explains

why an enthusiastic speaker makes her or his audience feel enthusiastic as well,

and why someone who speaks with no emotion at all quickly numbs an

audience into boredom.

3 Examples, illustrations, anecdotes. The neurological rule is: the more complex

the neural pathways, the more effectively the brain functions. A synaptic firing

sequence that only moves through three or four areas in the brain will always

provoke less attention, excitement, thought, and growth in the learner than

one that moves through several hundred, even several thousand. This is the

problem with teaching (and writing) that adheres closely to a single method,

like lists of general principles. There is nothing wrong with lists of general

principles; but they only activate certain limited areas of the brain. When they

are illustrated with anecdotes from the speaker's or other people's

experiences, that not only activates new areas in the listener's brain; it also

inspires the listener to think up similar events in her or his own experience,

which again activates numerous new neural loops. From a speaking and

writing viewpoint, the rule would say: the more specificity and variety, the

better. Vague, general, and repetitive phrasings will always be less interesting

and provocative than specific, detailed, and surprising phrasings.

4 Relevance. This is closely related to the importance of illustrating general claims

with detailed observations, examples, and anecdotes. The brain is a merciless

pragmatist: because it is faced with millions more stimuli than it can ever

process, it must screen out things that it perceives as irrelevant to its needs.

Sometimes it is forced to shut out even very interesting stimuli, because they

overlap with more relevant stimuli that must be attended to first. Speakers

and writers who build bridges to their listeners' and readers' experience are

often condemned by traditionalists for "pandering" to their audience; much

better, in these people's minds, to present a subject in its most logical,

systematic, and objective form and let listeners and readers build their own

bridges. While that works for specialists who have spent years building such

bridges, discovering the relevance of a subject to their own lives, it does not

work at all for beginners who have no idea what possible connection it might

have to their experience.

5 State of mind (brain waves). It is common knowledge that we need to be in a

receptive state of mind before we can take in new information. Most people

also recognize that it is difficult to perform even the simplest analytical or

other processing operations in certain mental or physical states — when

worried, or feverish, or angry, or hungry. It should be obvious, for example,

that a listener forced to sit through a boring lecture might well grow angry

and become even less receptive to the lecture than otherwise; or that a listener

who is enjoying a lecture will relax into a receptive frame of mind and will

be more open to the new ideas presented in it than otherwise. What may not

be so obvious is that the most receptive state of mind is not full alertness, as

we have been taught to believe, but a relaxed, dreamy reverie state that our

teachers have branded "not paying attention" or "daydreaming" — the so-called

"alpha" state. Many of the exercises in this book use music and relaxation to

help students get into this receptive frame of mind.

6 Multimodal experience. As we will see in Chapter 3, the rule regarding the

complexity of neural pathways applies equally to the channels through which

information comes: information presented through a single voice (as in the

traditional lecture) is received and processed far less effectively than

information presented through several voices (as in discussion, team-teaching,

or taped materials); and information presented through voice alone is received

and processed far less effectively than information presented through voice,

music, visual material, and various tactile and kinesthetic experiences.