Many people today continue to misconstrue passive, observational activities for authentic learning. To be real and have an impact, educational activities should take place within a meaningful context, involve hands-on participation by everyone, and have a real purpose outside the lesson. It’s best if participants create some kind of product which tangibly represents their learning and mastery of new ideas as well as skills. To be truly educative, lessons should involve more DOING rather than watching. We learn what we do, much more than we learn when we watch or simply listen.

This educational philosophy is not new, and has been espoused eloquently in the past by leaders like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and John Holt. Neil Postman is another of my favorite thinkers and writers about education and learning, and this Christmas break I’ve started to re-read “Teaching As a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. On page 17 Postman and Weingartner reflect on the contributions of Marshall McLuhan to thinking about learning and education by writing:

Many of his [McLuhan's] observations are reaffirmations of ideas previously expressed by other educationists– for example, John Dewey and A.N Whitehead– ideas which were, and still are, largely ignored by those who could profit most from them. We are especially in McLuhan’s debut for his restatement, in alliterative language, of Dewey’s belief that “we learn what we do.” McLuhan means much the same thing by his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message” (which for emphasis, fun and publicity ha has rephrased, “The medium is the message”). From this perspective, one is invited to see the most important impressions made on a human nervous system come from the character and structure of the environment within which the nervous system functions; that the environment itself conveys the critical and dominant messages by controlling the perceptions and attitudes of those who participate in it. Dewey stressed that the role of an individual is assigned in an environment– what he is permitted to do– is what the individual learns. In other words, the medium itself, i.e., the environment, is the message. “Message” here means the perceptions you are allowed to build, the attitudes you are enticed to assume, the sensitivities you are encouraged to develop– almost all of the things you learn to see and feel and value. You learn them because your environment is organized in such a way that it permits or encourages or insists that you learn them.

As I read these words and think about our changing information landscape in the 21st century, I’m struck by how important it is that we create learning environments for our students in which they are encouraged to constructively, responsibly, thoughtfully and ethically utilize digital media tools to create, communicate and collaborate. It is foolish to imagine students can acquire these skills and dispositions through passive observation: by simply reading and watching. It’s essential we provide “digital sandboxes” for our students (and for ourselves) to repeatedly practice digital communication and publication. Through social media, many more people are not only consuming messages but creating and sharing them as well. Important responsibilities are associated with publication and redistribution of information which many people may not thoughtfully consider today. Snopes is full of examples.

As you consider resolutions for 2011, consider the platforms for publication and sharing which you as well as your students have to utilize regularly. Digital literacy is an acquired sensitivity and skill, not a genetic inheritance. If your class does not have a blog, start one. If you do not have an online space for communicating with professional peers, parents, and students, start one. If you have a photo-capable smartphone and enjoy photography, start a 365 photo blog. Each of these online spaces can become a digital sandbox for collaboratively engaging as well as reflecting on digital literacy skills. Dean Shareski made the case for sharing persuasively in his 2010 K-12 Online Conference keynote.

The children and young adults who will fill our classrooms after the holiday break will have most likely spent A LOT OF TIME in front of screens. Cell phones and mobile devices multiply our opportunities to face as well as interact with pixels. If we are to become media literate ourselves, and help younger generations become more media literate, we must find ways to regularly PRACTICE media literacy. We need to help our students become storychasers, and develop our own storychasing skills as well.

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  • http://www.mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com Alex Kuskis

    I fully agree with you & am presently researching & writing a book on McLuhan on Education. I am requesting your permission to republish part or all of this posting on my blog: McLuhan Galaxy at http://www.mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com . Please advise. Thanks….Alex

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Yes I’d be honored, Alex – this content is licensed CC-BY so please feel free to quote. :-)

  • Chris Front

    While I agree with much of what you’ve said, I am bothered by your characterization of reading as passive. By nature, reading is not passive (in fact deep reading is one of the least passive processes of brain activity). Nor is digitally delivered content inherently better or worse than other inputs. Dewey was challenging passive intakes, where the goal was to learn by rote. You are right that new technologies offer the POTENTIAL for active learning, but they can be as worthless as the worst 19th century lesson plan too. (instant quizzes which merely test factual mastery is a perfect example)

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Points well taken, Chris. I shouldn’t have cast reading as always a passive experience- I definitely subscribe to theories of reading as an active construction of the text, the reader interacting with the text, etc. I intended to contrast active learning to passive, lecture-based learning. Often that model of learning involves students mainly listening to lectures and taking notes… Watching the lecture and filling in the study guide. Reading the chapter and answering the questions at the end. When I wrote “by simply reading and watching” I was thinking of computer aided instruction (CAI) as well as lecture-based lessons which follow these mostly non-interactive models… One of my purposes was to highlight the comparative value of active learning to passive models which don’t involve significant reader interaction with the text. I was wanting to highlight the idea that “learning is more than filling a pail – it is more analogous to lighting a fire.” I do recognize that reading can be an active and engaging experience (at best a flow experience) but often with teacher-assigned reading it’s not.

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