Pedagogy / Professional Development

Marshall McLuhan and the Medium in Education

Marshall McLuhan is probably my favorite theorist/philosopher of the 20th century. His work on media and it’s role in shaping the minds of all of us was both unbelievably prescient and amazingly accurate. In “the medium is the message,” the point can be

the essential argument contained within the piece can be (overly simplistically) broken down to this: in whatever you’re studying, the medium by which information is conveyed is, on a societal level, always more significant than the message contained within that information. In other words, the fact that you’re watching TV does more to shape how you think, behave, interact with others than anything you might watch on that TV.

This got me thinking about the amount of time teachers spend on the content of our courses and how little time we spend on the media by which we ask students to express their learning. If you were to ask most teachers, the amount of time they spend considering the content of their lessons dramatically dwarfs the time they spend considering how that information is conveyed to the students. Furthermore, when considering the time spent teaching the content (be it math, science or history) in the course versus the time spent teaching how to approach the medium by which students demonstrate their understanding isn’t even close. I would venture to guess that the number of teachers who spend significant time teaching the media by which students display information (teaching, not “training,” i.e. ‘this is how iMovie works) is probably less than 5% of all teachers in the country.

But the medium is the message.

Consider student blogging. Teaching the skill of writing a blog post, for example, is something that can be valuable to a student, but is almost universally ignored by teachers. How to adequately express the message while simultaneously personalizing the issue is what makes many blogs worth reading, and too often students are taught skills that cause them to rely exclusively upon message/information (the research paper process) or personalization (the narrative) without understanding how the two can be linked within a single piece. Furthermore, blogging allows for the immediacy of mass audience, something that is too rarely considered by teachers and schools.

Examples like the above indicate that serious time needs to be devoted in the classroom to working through the skill of blogging. However, teachers rarely take the time to consult with colleagues on how to teach this skill. Immediate, authentic skills, especially in the area of writing, are typically eschewed in favoring of discussions involving the order of content to be covered (that is, if teachers are even given the opportunity to meet with colleagues). Teachers should be meeting on a regular basis to discuss how skills, mindsets, and content need to converge within their classrooms in order to effectively teach students at a given moment. If more time was dedicated to considering the medium even more than the “message,” both students and teachers would find that their classes would come alive with even more dramatic, authentic learning experiences. As postmodern (in the McLuhan sense) educators, we need to be doing more to emphasize the importance of the medium by which students convey information and learning, because as we’ve seen over the last 15-20 years, the growth of modern digital media has done more to shape the world than anything since the printing press.


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