Three economics professors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point recently studied the use of electronic devices in their classroom. They divided their students into three sections:
the first section was prohibited from using any electronic devices,
the second section was allowed to use any laptop or tablet,
the third section was allowed only devices that lay flat on the desk so that professors could monitor them.
The students in the technology-free section performed academically better than students in the other two.
Such results point to the important relationship between what students learn and the way they learn it. In other words, the medium affects the message. Changing the former influences our experience of the latter.
This relationship often goes unnoticed, but there’s plenty of evidence in our everyday lives that some forms are less appropriate than others for delivering certain content.
You’re a young man hoping to impress a romantic interest ... or a grateful husband celebrating your 25th wedding anniversary. Do you take your girlfriend or wife to McDonald's?
Those who answer “no” probably don’t base their decision solely on the content (the food). They also sense that the goal of such a dinner doesn’t fit with the way food is experienced at McDonald's—that is, it’s form. (After all, if you called ahead and arranged for Maccas to bring in filet mignon and crème brûlée from a five-star chef—would that change your answer?)
You’re a church music director arranging a song about the heartbreak of Jesus’ followers and mother during his crucifixion. Do you set it to a fast, upbeat tempo? Or does some content simply not lend itself to being conveyed through certain musical styles?
If you're unsure, check out the striking results when guests on the show “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” sing familiar songs to different tunes. My favourite is “Meet the Flintstones” sung to Sinatra’s “My Way”! (Listen and see if you process the words any differently.)
You’re an undecided voter trying to determine which party’s policies are better for the country. Are you helped much by the modern format of televised debates—one that allows candidates only 2 minutes to explain their positions (if they can speak louder than their interrupting opponent)?
It seems that this form is more suitable to a personality or public relations competition than a policy debate. In fact, ask yourself what counts as “winning” a modern televised debate—explaining positions in a more logical way than your opponent or looking more confident and committing less gaffes? Does the form encourage the viewing audience to seek knowledge or entertainment?
These are only a few examples demonstrating Marshall McLuhan’s point that “the medium is the message.” Sadly, though, many people fail to attend critically to the inherent power of a particular medium. Well-meaning Christians, for example, can focus so much on the content of a movie or TV show (how many curse words or sex scenes?) that they ignore the influence the form itself might have.
(The Christian Broadcasting Network once created a Christian soap opera called Another Life which essentially copied the genre—camera angles, music, etc.—but substituted Christian characters talking about the importance of their faith when facing crises!)
The same is true in education. We need to pay attention not only to the material students learn but also the medium through which they learn it.
As the educational reformer John Dewey argued, the content of a lesson is not necessarily the most important thing about learning:
Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.
We need to explore how the medium through which students receive information subtly forms them. What sort of habits do students develop when they sit through a lecture compared with engaging in a Socratic conversation? What are they taught to appreciate in a secular vs faith-based environment? What sort of attitudes and expectations do they form when they stare at a screen rather than observing the facial expressions of their teacher and peers?
The students at West Point mastered their economics material better when taking notes by hand. “Changing their tune,” so to speak, affected how they processed the words.
Their learning was formed by their form of learning.
Institute Students Look to the Stars
Astronomy is one of the original 7 liberal arts. Through its study we not only engage questions about the degree to which we can trust our eyesight (it looks like the sun moves around the earth!) but also discern beautiful patterns in the cosmos. That's why members of the Science & Astronomy class at the Millis Institute recently visited the Brisbane Planetarium. The capable staff walked our students through a specially-tailored presentation explaining the nature of stars, the motion of planets, and the sun's apparent change of location in different seasons.