The Medium Shapes the Learning

My students toured one of Edison's film studios.  They saw firsthand how something so lifelike is actually a production.  


The filmmakers chop up bits and pieces of captured, vital life and reproduce it into something new.  

It's magic to us. We're mesmerized by the dancing light and the larger-than-life figures haunting us in their "not-really-here but not-really-gone" since of permanence.  Everything is smoother, grander and more seductive than the terrestrial reality of a school yard.

Yes, I know it is about light hitting a photograph and moving.  "Motion picture" sounds tame.  But given the nature of light, the paradox of ray and particle, I can't help but see the magic of the motion picture.  When they perfect the art of phonography, we'll have talking motion pictures.  Perhaps a century from now we'll have it all at the palm of our hands - the ability to pick apart and edit life and present it as something new and magical.  

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"Why can't we get a film studio on campus?" a student asks me.  

"I'm not sure about the medium," I tell him.  

"So, just teach like you normally would and add some motion picture parts.  I bet it would be fun. Imagine what we would produce."  



I'm thinking of the Roman notion of bread and circus.  I always assumed bread was the more powerful element.  I'm now understanding the pull of circus.  It's not that I am opposed to fun, per se.  It's just that often "fun" is the cheap replacement of "intriguing" or "meaningful" or "beautiful" or "life-changing."  Edison's studio is, in fact, a fun factory.  I cannot and should not reproduce it.  

*     *     *

Educators often believe that they have the power to wield each tool to fit their own purpose.  They assume that a lesson can remain virtually unchanged when a new medium is added.  Often, the metaphor is one of a tool - though, they would never use a tool in this way.  Who would ever say, "We need to screw this in with a hammer?"  

There is something inherently dangerous about taking every technological device and applying it to learning without ever asking the intended meaning of a medium.  A pencil, for example, is inherently individual, deliberately vague (shades of gray, ability to erase), intellectual, portable and text-based.  A film is, by contrast, visual, collective, emotional, geography-bound, visual and non-linear.  

If I begin with a lesson plan and simply pick a tool based upon "fun" or "productivity" or "student engagement," I am running the risk of teaching something entirely unintended.  If I introduce a telegraph as a source of knowledge, we send an implied message that knowledge should be portable, consumable and in small increments. 

I am not opposed to adding new tools to learning.  I simply want us to recognize that whatever tools we choose will reshape learning in ways that we often fail to recognize.

How I Got Roped Into a Satirical Workshop Presentation

We all had to fill out a sheet of paper (you should have seen the complaints teachers made about having to use pencils in professional development) describing what type of workshop presentation we want to deliver in our monthly district professional development.

I don't mind the notion of a monthly professional development, despite the reality that the best skills I have learned occurred in a relational context, within the process of teaching and only among a small number of people.  That and it usually involved a pint or two.

I simply don't have anything to teach, which makes it a dangerous venue for me.  I play Icarus with the group and take the wings they offer me and then sail beyond my area of expertise.  I get arrogant.  I put on an act.  It's not that people dislike it.  In fact, they are often enjoying the show.  It's just that it's dangerous for me when I fall into the sea and I'm left in isolation to tread water with my arrogant self.

So, when I filled out my application, I wrote the following answers as a joke:

1. What is the most important element in a thriving economy?
The human element.

2. What do business leaders use to create economic growth?
They use humanity.  All of us.  Those who figure out how to manipulate people learn how to manipulate systems and create revenue for personal gain.

3. What is the most necessary skill needed in an industrial economy?
For those at the bottom, it is obedience and conformity.  To those at the top, it is figuring out how to get people who are naturally inclined to freedom and individuality to sacrifice these ideals to serve the needs of the company.

Yeah, I realize it had an anti-capital streak to it.  I'm a bit of a civil libertarian myself.  More of a Thoreau  than an Emerson than a Marx or a Tolstoy. (Though I was involved in the Haymarket Square protests back in the day)

Then again, it was a joke.  So, I was a bit surprised when I received the telegraph explaining that they would love me to give "The Human Element" as a PD explaining the dangers in being obsessed with education-for-job-growth and missing out on the notion of education-for-life.  Perhaps I could even go in character as a representative of a robber baron and force the audience into deconstructing the satire.

It will be interesting.

I'm thinking "The Human Element: Ten Ways to Teach Students to Use People for Personal Gain."  I heard people love lists and numbers at PD.

No, I Won't Address Pencil Bullying

"Mr. Johnson, I think you need to talk to your class about pencil bullying," a district office representative explains to me.

"Can you elaborate on this?"

"Well, there was an incident where a student pinned up a note on the wall of another students' home."

"Was the wall private or public?"

"It was private, I suppose. But the point is that it was a clear act of pencil bullying."

"So, what would you like me to do about it?" I ask.

"Talk to your class about the severity of pencil bullying.  Let them know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated."

Zero tolerance.  Bad behavior.

We're missing the point. Our lack of tolerance and militaristic mindset is part of what causes bullying.  When we fail to create a safe space for children, bullying increases. Furthermore, our obsession with behavior rather than the human condition only enhances the problem, because it fails to question why students choose to bully other students.

Is it the social capital they gain?  Is it their own insecurity?  Is it what they have seen modeled for them?  Is it the result of being bullied?

I don't have the answers to any of those questions.  However, I do know one thing: bullying is not a result of pencils.  Yes, a public note can amplify the bullying.  Yet, information spread verbally is just as devastating.   A rumor can move just as quickly as a pencil-based message.  However, it doesn't have a paper trail, making it stickier and more organic.

What if pencils do not change bullying so much as help us see that it is a part of the reality of childhood?  What if the paper trail is now the collective voice of all the students who live in fear on a daily basis? Is it possible that bullying is not a new trend so much as it is a part of our public memory that we have deliberately forgotten in order to perpetuate a myth of the innocence of childhood?  What if the deeper reality is that humankind can be dark, even at an early age?

Perhaps the answer isn't a classroom chat about pencil etiquette.  Instead, the answer might be that we truly ask what it means to be human and what it means to love one another in the context of community. Instead of obsessing over pen pal networks and sharpened pencils, we might want to think about the nature of humanity and the darkness that we all share.

As I leave his office, he hands me a stack of fliers and a curriculum for pencil bullying entitled "Let's Erase Bullying."  It has a smiling pencil giving a thumbs up.  I'm doubtful that peppy propaganda will change things.  I'm skeptical that Zero Tolerance will fix it as well.  In fact, I don't have the answers on how to fix it at all, but I suspect it might be more simple and more complex than we imagine.  It might just be that the only solution to "pencil bullying" is love.

Put the Pencil Down

The rainclouds gather and the class grows antsy in anticipation.  For all the brick and concrete and steel of the school, the natural element has a way of awakening something primitive in every student.  It's not that primitive is bad, either.  It's simply deeper, more human, more earthy and real than dividing fractions.

The claps of thunder disrupt my monologue.

I let go.

Students gather near the windows and watch, studying first the drops and then the hail.  A few brave souls venture outside and experiencing the pummeling of a lifetime, but the fist-fulls of atmospheric ice are a prize they relish.

"Is it safe to eat?" one asks.

A girl pulls out her paper and begins to draw.  Her twin sister slaps her hand away and says, "Not yet.  You can sketch later.  Right now we can watch."

A boy standing by our class camera takes the twin's advice and sets down the machine.

When we study conflict, we study Man versus Nature and Man versus Machine.  Today, though, we are watching Nature versus Machine and though the war may be lost, this battle belongs to the clouds.