(originally published on Britannica Blog)
In spring 2007 I invited the 200 students enrolled in the “small” version of my “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” class to tell the world what they think of their education by helping me write a script for a video to be posted on YouTube. The result was the disheartening portrayal of disengagement you see below. The video was viewed over one million times in its first month and was the most blogged about video in the blogosphere for several weeks, eliciting thousands of comments. With rare exception, educators around the world expressed the sad sense of profound identification with the scene, sparking a wide-ranging debate about the roles and responsibilities of teachers, students, and technology in the classroom.
Despite my role in the production of the video, and the thousands of comments supporting it, I recently came to view the video with a sense of uneasiness and even incredulity. Surely it can’t be as bad as the video seems to suggest, I thought. I started wrestling with these doubts over the summer as I fondly recalled the powerful learning experiences I had shared with my students the previous year. By the end of the summer I had become convinced that the video was over the top, that things were really not so bad, that the system is not as broken as I thought, and we should all just stop worrying and get on with our teaching.But when I walked into my classroom for the first day of school two weeks ago I was immediately reminded of the real problem now facing education. The problem is not just “written on the walls.” It’s built into them.
I arrived early, finding 493 empty numbered chairs sitting mindlessly fixated on the front of the room. A 600 square foot screen stared back at them. Hundreds of students would soon fill the chairs, but the carefully designed sound-absorbing walls and ceiling, along with state of the art embedded speakers, ensured that there would only be one person in this room to be heard. That person would be me, pacing around somewhere near stage-left, ducking intermittently behind a small podium housing a computer with a wireless gyromouse that will grant me control of some 786,432 points of light on that massive screen.
The room is nothing less than a state of the art information dump, a physical manifestation of the all too pervasive yet narrow and naïve assumption that to learn is simply to acquire information, built for teachers to effectively carry out the relatively simple task of conveying information. Its sheer size, layout, and technology are testaments to the efficiency and expediency with which we can now provide students with their required credit hours.
My class is popular. We only enroll 400 so there should have been plenty of seats but on the first day all seats were filled and it was standing room only in the back. The room was buzzing with energy as friends reconnected after the long summer.
I started talking and an almost deafening silence greeted my first words. I have always been amazed and intimidated by this silence. It seems to so tenuously await my next words. The silence is immediately filled with the more subtle yet powerful messages sent by 500 sets of eyes which I continuously scan, “listening” to what they have to say as I talk. In an instant those eyes can turn from wonder and excitement to the disheartening glaze of universal and irreversible disengagement. Perpetually dreading this glaze I nervously pace as I talk and use grandiose gestures. At times I feel desperate for their attention. I rush to amuse them with jokes and stories as I swing, twist, and swirl that gyromouse, directing the 786,432 pixels dancing points of light behind me, hoping to dazzle them with a multi-media extravaganza.
Somehow I seem to hold their attention for the full hour. I marvel at what a remarkable achievement it is to bring hundreds of otherwise expressive, exuberant, and often rebellious youths into a single room and have them sit quietly in straight rows while they listen to the authority with the microphone. Such an achievement could not be won by an eager teacher armed with technology alone. It has taken years of acclimatizing our youth to stale artificial environments, piles of propaganda convincing them that what goes on inside these environments is of immense importance, and a steady hand of discipline should they ever start to question it. Alfred North Whitehead called it “soul murder.”
Reports from my teaching assistants sitting in the back of the room tell a different story. Apparently, several students standing in the back cranked up their iPods as I started to lecture and never turned them off, sometimes even breaking out into dance. My lecture could barely be heard nearby as the sound-absorbing panels and state of the art speakers were apparently no match for those blaring iPods. Scanning the room my assistants also saw students cruising Facebook, instant messaging, and texting their friends. The students were undoubtedly engaged, just not with me.
My teaching assistants consoled me by noting that students have learned that they can “get by” without paying attention in their classes. Perhaps feeling a bit encouraged by my look of incredulity, my TA’s continued with a long list of other activities students have learned that they can “get by” without doing. Studying, taking notes, reading the textbook, and coming to class topped the list. It wasn’t the list that impressed me. It was the unquestioned assumption that “getting by” is the name of the game. Our students are so alienated by education that they are trying to sneak right past it.
If you think this little game is unfair to those students who have been duped into playing, consider those who have somehow managed to maintain their inherent desire to learn. One of the most thoughtful and engaged students I have ever met recently confronted a professor about the nuances of some questions on a multiple choice exam. The professor politely explained to the student that he was “overthinking” the questions. What kind of environment is this in which “overthinking” is a problem? Apparently he would have been better off just playing along with the “getting by” game.
Last spring I asked my students how many of them did not like school. Over half of them rose their hands. When I asked how many of them did not like learning, no hands were raised. I have tried this with faculty and get similar results. Last year’s U.S. Professor of the Year, Chris Sorensen, began his acceptance speech by announcing, “I hate school.” The crowd, made up largely of other outstanding faculty, overwhelmingly agreed. And yet he went on to speak with passionate conviction about his love of learning and the desire to spread that love. And there’s the rub. We love learning. We hate school. What’s worse is that many of us hate school because we love learning.
What went wrong?
How did institutions designed for learning become so widely hated by people who love learning?
The video seemed to represent what so many were already feeling, and it became the focal point for many theories. While some simply blamed the problems on the students themselves, others recognized a broader pattern. Most blamed technology, though for very different reasons. Some simply suggested that new technologies are too distracting and superficial and that they should be banned from the classroom. Others suggested that students are now “wired” differently. Created in the image of these technologies, luddites imagine students to be distracted and superficial while techno-optimists see a new generation of hyper-thinkers bored with old school ways.
But the problems are not new. They are the same as those identified by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner nearly 40 years ago when they described the plight of “totally alienated students” involved in a cheating scandal (a true art form in the “getting by” game) and asked, “What kind of vicious game is being played here, and who are the sinners and who the sinned against?” (1969:51).
Texting, web-surfing, and iPods are just new versions of passing notes in class, reading novels under the desk, and surreptitiously listening to Walkmans. They are not the problem. They are just the new forms in which we see it. Fortunately, they allow us to see the problem in a new way, and more clearly than ever, if we are willing to pay attention to what they are really saying.
They tell us, first of all, that despite appearances, our classrooms have been fundamentally changed. There is literally something in the air, and it is nothing less than the digital artifacts of over one billion people and computers networked together collectively producing over 2,000 gigabytes of new information per second. While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation. In short, they tell us that our walls no longer mark the boundaries of our classrooms.
And that’s what has been wrong all along. Some time ago we started taking our walls too seriously – not just the walls of our classrooms, but also the metaphorical walls that we have constructed around our “subjects,” “disciplines,” and “courses.” McLuhan’s statement about the bewildered child confronting “the education establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules” still holds true in most classrooms today. The walls have become so prominent that they are even reflected in our language, so that today there is something called “the real world” which is foreign and set apart from our schools. When somebody asks a question that seems irrelevant to this real world, we say that it is “merely academic.”
Not surprisingly, our students struggle to find meaning and significance inside these walls. They tune out of class, and log on to Facebook.
Fortunately, the solution is simple. We don’t have to tear the walls down. We just have to stop pretending that the walls separate us from the world, and begin working with students in the pursuit of answers to real and relevant questions.
When we do that we can stop denying the fact that we are enveloped in a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted. We can acknowledge that most of our students have powerful devices on them that give them instant and constant access to this cloud (including almost any answer to almost any multiple choice question you can imagine). We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us. In the process, we allow students to develop much-needed skills in navigating and harnessing this new media environment, including the wisdom to know when to turn it off. When students are engaged in projects that are meaningful and important to them, and that make them feel meaningful and important, they will enthusiastically turn off their cellphones and laptops to grapple with the most difficult texts and take on the most rigorous tasks.
There are many faculty around the world who have enthusiastically embraced the challenge to bring meaning and significance back into the classroom. I hope that they will comment here and enrich us all with their ideas. If you are interested in the specifics of how I attempt to solve the significance problem in the large class featured in the video and discussed in this post, check out the World Simulation, a project in which students explore the dynamics of how the world works in order to create a simulation recreating the past 500 years of history and exploring 100 years into the future. I discuss the project and my use of technology in detail in A Portal to Media Literacy, available on YouTube, and in the essay, “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance.”