Friday, September 25, 2009

Does educational interaction rely on interruption?

I attended another presentation today where the presenter said "I would like this presentation to be interactive, so feel free to interrupt me at any time to ask questions." The presenter went on to say that she would stop presenting from time to time so we could ask questions. Clearly, her view was that interaction would make it possible for us to learn more effectively.

What is behind the connection between "interaction" and "interruption?" I have tended to think it is laziness--the presenter doesn't take the time to plan actual interaction, so instead s/he invites the audience to do it instead. Or, there isn't enough time for presentation and interaction, so the presenter gives over the responsibility to the audience to decide whether interaction is worth it. Almost always, the audience declines the offer. It is one of those tacit agreements on which the machinery of education runs.

After thinking a bit more, though, I'm not sure I should be so cynical. "Interact" means "to act on each other;" "interrupt" to "cause or make a break in the continuity or uniformity of." So the question really ought to be which sorts of interaction are best facilitated by interruption?

I once gave a lecture in a huge American Institutions class in which I invited students to interrupt me whenever I said something they didn't agree with. At each interruption I invited the student to come to the front of the class to explain her/his objection. Those breaks had an interesting result--students listened closer to what I was saying so they could object.

Lots of people have argued that groupthink is a problem for learning, for decision-making, and for society. Yet just as often, when someone points out the groupthink, that person is shamed. (Joe Wilson anyone?) I'm not coming out in favor of public belligerence. But I do wonder if schools, communities, and homes wouldn't be better off if we strengthened the link between education and interruption.


lionofzion said...
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lionofzion said...

This summer I led a panel discussion on the political impact of poetry in the twentieth century-- my plan was to have a standard presentation by the panel members, and then a question and answer session. But the audience was not about to simply accept my plan-- five minutes into my presentation, one of the audience members raised her hand and an objection to my theory of the poet's role. This prompted other audience comments, and soon the panel discussion turned into an open forum.

What surprised me was that these interruptions were almost uniformly useful, rather than simply disruptive. By challenging the 'official stance' my colleagues and I proposed, the audience not only forced us to consider alternatives, they made us defend and develop our arguments more fully.

Instead of simply being the 'teaching experience' I had anticipated, the panel became a learning experience as well, as the research I had done was subjected to outside question and debate, suggesting new insights and conclusions.