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.  

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."  

Fun.  

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.

5 comments:

  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.

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  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!

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  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"!

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  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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