Have you ever heard the statement, “The Medium is the Message”? As an educator you probably have heard it and like me, kind of understood what it meant and kind of not. It is Marshall McLuhan’s famous line from Understanding Media. In a nutshell, it means that the form of the medium embeds itself in the message. How we present an idea or subject matter is equally if not more important as the content of the message itself. It was a profound statement in the burgeoning television era of the 1960s when McLuhan was writing and still carries significant weight today in our multi-media streamed world. When applied to teaching, the idea is mind blowing.
Think of your classroom as your medium. By classroom I don’t just mean the walls and desks, I mean the experience students have in your classroom. What is it like to learn in your room? The answer is your medium.
Teacher training programs often teach two sides to teaching: content and method (a third side, philosophy, is taught in the best of programs and is the bedrock of the other two but I won’t get into that rant here). Content is meat and method is the way we cook and serve the meat so that it can be digested. We are often told it is the student’s ability to understand the content that is the key to education while method is necessary but only because content needs to be delivered. I came into the classroom thinking this way. I had a head full of content and I wanted my students to know it as best they could.
However, the Medium is the Message.
How my students learn is formed by their learning environment 6 hours a day for 8 years (by the time they get to me in Middle School). This realization blew me away and made me rethink my approach to teaching and the learning environment of my classroom.
Students develop expectations for learning based on their classroom experience. Here is a typical classroom experience for many students:
- The teacher is the authority of knowledge and the arbiter of “the right answer.” Success in class comes from sitting still, listening, reading, watching, then answering questions where the answers are somewhere in the content previously ingested. There may be group activities from time to time and the goal is to provide the answers the teacher is looking for. There is some room for questions but only to clarify what the teacher wants from the students. Hard work will result in a better chance of getting the answer the teacher wants and a higher grade which feels good. There are some kids in the class who are better at this system than others and this stratification shows itself each time the class grade sheet is posted.
There is a bit more colour to this classroom experience but the point is that that the experience if focused around the teacher being the source of knowledge and the student seeking to please the source by providing what the teacher wants. If we take, “the medium is the message” seriously, then we need to see that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs (Postman & Weingartner p.19). The classroom experience embeds itself in the student and teaches them, “this is how you learn.” If the teacher is the be all and end all then the student learn to belief in authorities because they have the answers for the tests. They are required to memorize and remember because there is a test on the content.
Are they required to question where the knowledge comes from? Do they see other students as sources of information? Can they determine which problems are worth tackling and what method of inquiry should they use to tackle the problem?
In which environment would you rather learn? What experience do you want for your students?
One of my favourite learning activities is making connections. I take a number of different topics we have investigated and have students draw connections between them. I’ll attach a handy diagram below for you to download and use because it is a fabulous way to change the culture of your room from the one dimensional “find the answer” to a multi-dimensional “think about how each of these are related to each other” way of questioning. Try it out and observe how the students handle it. And write us back to let us know how it goes! Happy teaching.