Learning (and Teaching) in the 21st Century

In how people learn, innovation in teaching on September 17, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I belong to a reading group on campus that is reading Christopher Hedge’s Empire of Illusion (

Thursday’s discussion focused in part on the differences in learning abilities now and what constitutes literacy. We discussed the public’s attendance at the Lincoln-Douglas debates to demonstrate the public’s literacy in the mid 1860s. That compared unfavorably with the nature and intellectual challenge of current political debates.  One participant in the discussion noted that the Lincoln-Douglas debates are difficult to read and understand now and this participant considers himself well-educated.

That analysis was interesting. My only comment was to wonder what percentage of people actually attended the debates and we didn’t have the answer. However, on reflection, I have another theory about it. What if the reason the debates were well attended was because that was the way most information was communicated? What if so much information was communicated orally that people who were literate were those who learned best by listening and analysis. If you consider Socrates’ oral tradition and his methods of challenging students to complicated verbal exchanges, it would make sense that those who learned best would be those who learn from listening.

To continue with that thought, what if in the 20th century, those who learn best are those who learn through reading? Those who became professors learned much through poring through books, making connections from that reading and flourished in that system. The oral lectures supplemented that learning, but perhaps we learn best from reading.

Now, we are teaching a generation of students who seem to focus best on “sound bytes” and quick flashes of visual information. Video games manage to attract individuals’ attention to “learn” how to master a game. And many individuals are motivated to follow through on video games enough to analyze a complicated game and develop a strategy to accomplish the goal.

So what does that mean for educators? As educators do we need to change how we change? How do we do that?  How do we get learners to maintain their curiosity about how life works? How to we get learners to develop that curiosity into a curiosity about multiple topics? How do we get learners to become as curious about learning as (many) are about videogames, social media sites and celebrities? That is our challenge.

  1. […] discussed the benefits of failure to improve learning in this post. I’ve discussed the need to teach information literacy in this […]

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