Joe Collier: How spells and trances aid learning

Professor Joe CollierOver the years I have sat through plenty of lectures that have been plain awful. There have also been those which simply glued me to my seat, where time flew by, where information just flowed in, and after which there was a glow of satisfaction. I am not sure how best to describe what happens in those really good ones, but “spellbinding”, “entrancing”, “mesmerising” come close to capturing what I feel goes on. Crucially, the state is part of a shared arrangement; as a member of an audience I have wanted to be mesmerised, as a lecturer I knew that one of my jobs was to help weave spells (and on a good day this would occur).

Everybody knows that strange things happen at the theatre or cinema, in front of the telly, or when reading (or being read) a book. There one is – enthralled, at one with the story teller(s), blanking out reality, being moved emotionally, and all by an essentially unreal world of a stage, page or screen. We are, as they say, in a state of “suspended disbelief”, and happy to go along with it. Indeed, we may want to be there expressly to escape reality.

But something akin goes on in a good lecture, in a seminar, in a tutorial, or when reading a article. Clearly it is not the classic “suspended disbelief”, because there is little to disbelieve, and, of course, one is actually in a reality. Nevertheless, as a medical student (or graduate) at a lecture, for instance, one moves into a new plane in which one is cocooned with the speaker, where others in the audience fade away, where barriers to listening and hearing are lifted, and in which the speaker’s words seem to have an immediate accord and a special relevance. In the best lectures, windows in the mind are opened as new ideas, new insights, take hold. Things are a little different in a small group but the magic can be the same; the group goes from being a set of individuals to a “team”, where, as a (good) group, you quickly resolve problems that would be difficult to do crack alone, and where the experience of the “whole” gives the session a special warm and enjoyable feeling. Somehow the two hours spent together are converted from what might have been drudgery or boredom to something energising and special.

As a lecturer/tutor I know full well that my job is to facilitate entrancement. Moreover, the first few minutes of any teaching session are critical. Members of the audience/group are sizing you up, checking you are trustworthy and deciding if they will be safe (intellectually) in your hands. Your job is to establish an accord, to show that you are confident, that you know your stuff, that you are on their side, that you can lead them through difficult terrain, and that you can deliver (and then, go on to deliver clearly, interestingly, logically and on their terms). There will be occasions where all your skills are needed to establish these credentials, as when running a seminar with people who just do not want to be there. There are also times when all one needs to do is speak (just before exams a student audience will “‘eat out of your hands”). But generally there is work to be done.

During any lecture levels of entrancement fluctuate – sustaining a spell for a whole hour is well nigh impossible and some variation in intensity may actually help. It is also worth remembering that members of the audience will join the trance at different times and it is important to give the talk an overall ‘shape’ to take this into account, so starting at the more superficial, then moving to the more profound and then out again by the time of the final conclusion.  Once within the talk, I again try to move up and down through levels of intensity so going from the most demanding, as when giving detailed information or explaining complicated concepts, to levels in which I might simply summarise, offer generalisations, give context or possibly make asides. Apart from giving respite to those in the audience who are still “gripped”, this movement also allows those who have drifted away to be brought back into the spell.

For those who doubt that entrancement goes on (and I believe it is a component in any decent lecture), perhaps the best evidence of its existence comes from a common enough experience – something happens to cause the spell to be broken. A fire alarm in the middle of a lecture is a killer; a ringing mobile phone is very troublesome, an inappropriate/rude (perhaps highly personal) comment in a small group seminar can totally throw one. But there are also events originating from the speaker that can suddenly bring a spell to halt. I know from my own experience how the trance has been broken (how I have lost the audience) when the wrong ‘slide’ appeared on the screen, when I suddenly realised that I  had used an argument that was flawed or an example that did not work or I had made a error of fact. Then the question is how to “get the audience back” Whatever the cause, my solution has been to stop, openly recognise the jolt, and then go back and restart the talk, making a correction if needs be, from where I was when the spell still held. Sometimes, however, there is no remedy, as for example when, for one reason or another a member (or members) of a group, are determined to disrupt.

I expect we all know that our best teachers have the capacity to mesmerise, and conversely that the majority of any audience or group have an interest in being caught up in the “spell”.  We also know how spells can be broken and recognise those occasions where colleagues have been out to undermine the process. Despite their being universal, these key components of teaching and learning seem to be little discussed. If it is true that spells and trances offer a way of enhancing teaching and learning, which I think they do (spell-binding lectures are certainly those we all want to go to), then surely they should receive more attention.

Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy at St George’s, University of London