Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to reach students in today’s technology-driven world

My wife and I made a special effort to drive to Grand Rapids, Ohio, for their “Canal Days” (Sunday, September 10, 2006) because there was to be a Lewis & Clark educational program there.  The two fellows who performed as Lewis and Clark were former junior high school history teachers, and the fellow playing the role of Clark had actually ridden his bicycle the length of the trail just last year.  People (maybe 25 or 30 altogether) meandered in and out of the shelter where, wearing the same clothes Lewis and Clark might have worn, they gave their talk.   

Several things held our attention during the presentation.  First, both actors knew what they were talking about.  Having just driven the entire Lewis & Clark trail ourselves last year, we could verify much of what they said from our own experience and observations.  Second, the actors were animated, and their enthusiasm held audience attention.  Not only did they display a great deal of energy, but they played to their audience—some of whom were children.   

Another part of their program involved props, and they had many.  Some were maps laid out on the picnic tables at the front of the small pavilion.  The actors held in their hands the same kind of spears Lewis and Clark would have carried, and they had guns, animal skeletons, beads, pictures, a wood trap used to ensnare animals, and even the medallions they would give to the Indians they met along the trail.  There was a replica of the tent they would have slept in along the trail, and on one of the posts beside them was a framed picture of Sacagawea, the young Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied them on much of their trip.  

The point of this essay isn’t really what these two gentlemen said during their talk, it’s about what they did to make history come alive for their listeners.  In a Time magazine article entitled “History Goes Hollywood” (September 18, 2006, pp. 64-66), Nathan Thornburgh points out that schools are teaching less history, “so kids have less of an idea about what happened ...or why it matters (p. 64).”  But teaching less history is a small part of the problem—but definitely part of it. 

Because of theme parks, video games, movies, and the Internet, “Passive exhibits just aren’t going to attract young people today,” says Thornburgh, and because his article is about museums and historical sites, he discusses what many of them are doing because of dwindling crowds and shorter attention spans. 

For example, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum has a talking Honest Abe hologram “and a host of other educational parlor tricks (p. 64).”   The Marine Corps museum in Quantico, Virginia, is using changes in temperature and humidity to immerse visitors in harrowing and heroic battlescapes.  In Colonial Williamsburg they are using Palm Pilots that visitors can point at various landmarks to get video presentations.  At Mount Vernon, Virginia, home of George Washington, they offer a heavy dose of showmanship: a scrolling cartoon of Washington’s life, an action flick about Washington at war where visitor’s seats will rumble when the cannons go off and where the audience is dusted with simulated snow when Washington crosses the Delaware River. 

For many museums, it is the cost that is keeping them from going the entertainment/ showmanship route.  Government funding for the arts has dried up.  Many of the large foundations that once supported such endeavors through their philanthropy are now supporting social causes and leaving both museums and history behind. 

There are important implications in all of this for education.  When museums and historical sites try to boost their attendance by dumbing down history, ripping out intellectually challenging exhibits to make room for vapid video presentations, writes Thornburgh, what does this say about the consumer?  How does this bear on education? 

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington says, “we also have to give visitors what they need.”  “But,” writes Thornburgh, “increasingly what visitors really need may be the same as what they want: less in-depth education, and more seduction....When it comes to history, Americans don’t lack information; they lack the attention span to wade through the dusty collections of the old history museums.” 

It’s a whole new generation, one labeled “The ‘Daily Show’ generation,” in an article by Mary Zeiss Stange (USA Today, September 12, 2006, p. 15A), a college professor.  One major demographic for John Stewart’s “Daily Show” are students—young (14-22 years old), well-educated, moderates (or liberals) who get their news, for the most part (almost 60%), from the Web.  Why are they attracted to “The Daily Show”?  It doesn’t take a scientific study to determine the reasons—Stewart’s is an entertaining, highly engaging, humorous, satirical riff on the news.  It is precisely designed for those entertained by the media and the Internet. 

These are the same students who occupy the seats in classrooms across the U.S.A.  The question that begs an answer is: How can educators compete?  It isn’t just in the history classroom, it is in the math, science, English, foreign language, and other classrooms as well.  Not only are there few resources and little financial support to obtain more, but what do the new technology-driven students with their short attention-spans and desperate need to be entertained require to satisfy their educational needs?  Is there hope?  

Teachers can’t dress up in costumes every day and use a wide array of props to make their points.  Daily lessons do not need to be dumbed down and the intellectually challenging assignments eliminated and replaced by vapid video presentations—less in-depth education and more seduction.   And teacher-education programs don’t need to begin offering circus training, costume designing, acting, and text messaging courses.  This is obvious.  But what is the answer?  How do educators make certain they are reaching today’s students and making the kind of impression that makes learning—knowledge acquisition—enjoyable enough to inspire a lifetime of continued interest in further learning?   


“Fifteen guidelines for developing attention-holding lessons,” by Dr. Ronald Partin,  at his own website, is an excellent essay with terrific suggestions.  All teachers need to read this essay. 

Heather Carriero, at the associated content website, in his essay, “Teacher Tips: How to Keep Student Attention,” includes at least five excellent suggestions. 


Copyright October, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

1 comment:

  1. Maximillion Ryan IIIOctober 14, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    Experiential learning is where things are leading. However, this still needs to be tied to in-depth study. Experiential learning can go hand in hand with "textbook" learning if only done properly.


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