The Great Mismatch

by Charles Euchner on March 12, 2012

Just discovered this fascinating video from a cultural anthropology class at Kansas State.

The class, taught by Michael Wesch, explored a simple but oft-neglected question: What’s it like to be a student today? The answer: Not what we teachers and prospective employers, parents and neighbors, think.

The school and university, as we know them today, are products of the nineteenth century. Information and expertise, in those days, were rare. You had to enroll in a class — or make time-intensive trips to the library — to get access to that information. The major role of the teacher, then, was to offer ideas that could not be found elsewhere.

But today, we have more information that we can ever imagine. In 2010, the world created 1,200 exabytes of information — the equivalent of 1,200 trillion books. Almost three-quarters of those data come from humans, writing books and papers, blogs and reports, video transcripts and social media comments, and more. The rest gets generated automatically sensors and scanners that track our movements on the web and in streets, stores, and airports. Google, Bing, and Yahoo make finding data easy.

So the very foundation of schools today — teachers expounding in front of the room, as if the information they offer cannot be found anywhere else — is questionable. Students are asked to get enthused about something as up-to-date as a horse and buggy. They are asked to treasure the classroom’s information and insights, when they explore much more on a device the size of a pack of cards.

Yes, I know what happens in the classroom can be magical, transforming, liberating. A great class does much more than transmit ideas. But I have also been involved in higher education, on and off, for 30 years. And I know that the truly inspiring class is not the rule.

One claim from the video struck me. Don’t know its validity. But did you catch the claim that students write an average of 42 pages for papers over a semester … and 500 pages worth of emails?

How much of a dent can those papers make in students’ thinking and writing, given the context of everything else they do? Forty-two pages is nothing compared not just to that impressive output of email, but also in the context of TV, the Internet, music, and other claims on students’ lives.

So how can learning — including writing — better reflect contemporary realities?

As the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off says: Anyone? Anyone?

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