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.  

*     *     *

"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.


  1. I cannot wait to read the book! I wonder to what extent the ideas you write about are lost on people because of the "old" technologies.

    PS. I would argue film is linear rather than non-linear.

  2. Hi John, Im in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class. In reading your posts, i first just want to say that you are a very talented writer. You have an incredible way with words. I like how you use metaphors in reference to all sorts of things from technology to even how middle school students act even using them for describing X in mathematics. All your posts are great and thanks for sharing!

  3. Hello, Mr. Spencer! My name is Amanda Brewton. I'm in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 Class at the University of South Alabama (Mobile, AL). After reading a little more of your blog, I see that you do indeed use a lot of metaphors and humor in your writing. It's interesting to read because it's like a puzzle. I'm sitting here, reading words, but which meaning do they have! And, put together, what is the bigger meaning? Thanks for keeping our brains "ON"!

  4. Hi John. I, too, am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I have to agree with Cody above, you are a very talented writer. You encourage to make me think deeper and harder. That is a characteristic that many teachers lack. I am eager to see the future in educational tools that will reshape learning.


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