Teaching in the Digital Age
In our fast-paced, technologically based, profit-oriented society, those pursuing the fine art of teaching face challenges unlike those ever witnessed before.
Those who have chosen to accept the challenge of teachingwhatever levelsoon discover that it is a multifaceted, multilevel activity. Effective teaching consists of technique and strategies of instruction, instruction is not teaching. The larger part of teaching consists of complex understandings of our human condition, the developmental stages we pass through in our lives, the nature of knowledge, the source of values, the total historical/political/economic context in which teaching takes place, and, most of all, an understanding of ourselves. Attainment of such knowledge is a tall order that I translate into five quests, which, if pursued, may prepare one to teach.
"Know thyself," one of the oldest educational goals in human history, is perhaps the most difficult. The Scottish poet Robert Burns exclaimed, "Oh, would the power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us."1 A patient of mine, an elegant, cultured, woman of 60, sat in my office and described a moment of self-recognition she had experienced. She had entered an unfamiliar antique store when she noticed a cultured, attractive woman in her sixties at the rear of the store walking toward her. As she moved toward the figure, my patient discovered that the store's rear wall was a mirror and that the figure was none other than herself. Startled, she saw for the first time how someone else could perceive her. In a sense, she was tricked into seeing herself as others see her.
Gaining self-knowledge is no simple task. Numerous factors contribute to self-knowledge: a childhood in which we are loved and esteemed as we grow, an inner, imaginative life fostered through reading and listening carefully as our parents read to us, and an education where we are taught to value our inner and outer life. Ideally, from early childhood, we should develop in an environment that fosters inward journeying and a fearless exploration of motives, defenses, and drives.
The second quest, gaining an understanding of our society, is in many ways as challenging as seeking self-knowledge. Knowing our society is quite different from conforming or accommodating. There are many levels of knowledge ranging from superficial to in-depth. After spending nine months in America in 1831, French author Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America. As a sensitive and shrewd outside observer, he was able to look at early-19th-century America with fresh eyes and see more than those immersed in the culture.
Accordingly, understanding our own society requires an open and inquiring mind as well as the capacity to be objective and to withhold judgment. Above all we need to be able to recognize the difference between what we might believe to be true and what actually is true.
When combined, the capacities required to know ourselves and our society equip us to know the student, which is the third quest. No one would ever think of training a horse or a tiger before acquiring a thorough understanding of these creatures. How strange it would be if you responded to an employment ad for a company seeking a dog trainer and when asked in an interview what you knew about dogs, you responded by saying, "Well, nothing, but I can train them."
To teach our students, we must know them and our own developmental stages, defenses, hangups, and strengths. This is especially true if we are teaching adolescents (which I have done for most of my life). We need to be in touch with our own adolescence, to have worked through it, and have an adult's perspective on it. Our students are influenced by society and we need to understand the forces that are shaping them and how these influences differ from the ones that shaped us.
The fourth quest is to know the institution in which we teach. I have taught at an array of institutions, including a large city high school, a private prep school, a religious school, the U.S. Marine Corps, a small, isolated college, a large state university, a college with a reputation as a "party school," and Berklee College of Music. One lesson I have learned is that the teaching must be tailored to the institution just as it must be tailored to the student and society. Berklee is oriented more toward expressing than taking in. In my Berklee classes, I seek to find ways that my students can give expression to what I am encouraging them to take in.
The fifth quest concerns knowing your subject. Whether the content presented involves historical events and dates, techniques for conducting a junior high school chorus, or writing an expository essay, it is important that what we teach is accurate, substantive, and relevant to the student's life and society as a whole.
Both teacher and student should understand why the content is important, what the underlying principles illustrated by the content are, and what the practical, real-life consequences of knowing this subject are. The teacher should be aware of the values and perspectives he or she is promoting in teaching the subject.
As the ideal teacher pursues these quests, they become beacons guiding along the path toward the fine art of teaching. There is no end point. Teachers never end the quest to understand their students, themselves, society, the institution, or their chosen subject matter. Teaching is forever an unfinished process and teachers remain to the end unfinished. These quests provide us the foundation for the art of teaching. There are forces taking hold within our society that can distract us in the pursuit of these quests. They stand as barriers and seemingly insurmountable challenges.
As we begin the new millennium, I see five barriers that stand in the way of effective teaching. The first is the pervasive commodification of persons in our materialistic culture. What has not become a commodity? You name it, someone is selling it. Useful objects such as cars, toasters, or vacuum cleaners and more essential items like food or clothing are not all that is for sale. Hygiene, beauty, youth, knowledge, wellness, companionship, love, and sex are also commodities. Everything is saleable. If you know how to package and market it, you can get rich. People in American society are increasingly viewed as objects to be exploited in the interest of bringing a profit to a distant owner.
Much of contemporary culture encourages such exploitation. Some current bestsellers that offer advice to aspiring young business executives have titles like Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive2 or Your Executive Image: The Art of Self-Packaging for Men and Women.3 In such books, we are instructed to appear to be attentive and sympathetic, even naive, but in reality, we should be craftily and secretly figuring out the other person in order to maintain an edge. We are advised not to waste time but to pursue contacts and situations that promise a payoff. Machiavelli, that crafty 16th-century-adviser to kings, is alive and well.
Treating people like commodities and encouraging exploitative relationships between people works against building the authentic, trusting relationships between teacher and student that are so essential.4
The second barrier involves the corporate takeover of the democratic process and is related to the first. President Dwight D. Eisenhower prophetically warned against the dominance of the military-industrial complex in our federal government. Over the past 30 years, corporate power has increased progressively through powerful lobbies, massive campaign contributions, media saturation, and direct legislative influence. An example of this is the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Essentially written by the wireless industry, the act allows the industry to overrule the decision-making powers of towns and city governments. Additionally, deregulation and mergers have become the preferred choice for eliminating competition and gaining market control.
Corporate influence has become a barrier to effective teaching in many ways. University research facilities, for example, have been bought by industry, through direct corporate funding, by foundations, or by federal agencies that are themselves corporate influenced. Long before American industry discovered that outsourcing of manufacturing jobs was a windfall for profit margins, corporations were funding research in university laboratories to develop marketable products.
Reliance upon existing research facilitiessome established with taxpayer money on state university campuseswas an early form of research outsourcing that saved corporations the costs of building their own laboratories. When monies for research are derived directly or indirectly from self-interested corporations, university laboratories become the research arms of those corporations.
Similarly, when public schools allow cable television to be installed "free" in classrooms ostensibly for "learning" in exchange for permission to run advertisements, a barrier rises up. There is a conflict of interest.
The third barrier is erected by electronic forms of communication that interfere with direct contact with oneself, with others, and with first-hand experience of the world. The table below shows a personal experience continuum illustrating contact that ranges from the remote to first-hand experience.
One of the most common myths about the computer is that it is "merely a tool." Every tool, however, has a shaping effect on the user, the maker, and the culture in which it is used. The computer is no exception. Computer programs are based on Boolean logic and are Markov process binary systems. When we use a computer, we are deferring our own idiosyncratic logical structuring of experience to the impersonal logic of software. This means we are deferring to the logic of someone else's mind. For example, the underlying linear logic of Microsoft Windows conditions the user to focused linear thought patterns, incremental thinking in contrast to the random, free association of nonprogrammed thought, predetermined options (like the all too familiar computer menus), and repetitive, predictable outcomes rather than to chance and unexpected outcomes.
My own research indicates that modern technology conditions and shapes thought. I am currently conducting research on the possible hypnotic effects of cathode ray tube-generated images (images produced by television and desktop computer monitors). Analysis of the EEG-derived brain wave patterns of the 12 subjects in my pilot study shows that eight of them had a trance-like experience while watching a neutral-content video. The trance they entered was as deep or deeper than that experienced when hypnotized.
Given the increasingly pervasive use of computers in our society and their promotion as an educational tool (even for very young children), it is a significant finding that cathode ray tube-generated images may hypnotize. When we realize that in a hypnotic state, our critical, logical capacities are reduced and we become hypersuggestible and more emotionally reactive, we can appreciate why TV and the Internet effectively sell products and influence opinion. We can also better understand why over 40 percent of the purchases made on line are returned. By contrast, only 15 percent of mail order catalog purchases are returned.
Pertinent to the "merely a tool" myth of the computer is some startling research from Germany regarding the ability of the brain to adapt its structure to its use. Experimental data released by the Institute of Medical Psychology and Behavioral Neurobiology at the University of Tuebingen suggests that our senses are becoming blunted and require ever-stronger stimuli to elicit a response. A change in consciousness appears to be occurring.
New versus Old Brains
According to the study of reaction to stimuli, those born before 1949 have what is termed an "old brain," those born between 1949 and 1969 have a "modified old brain," and those born after 1969 appear to have a "new" or "fast" brain. Having grown up before the advent of TV and computers, this writer falls into the category of those possessing an old brain. Its characteristics include the capacity for sustained concentration, attention to logical coherence, and, according to this research, a capacity to experience a broader range of sensory responses.
Some characteristics of the new brain, as identified by the Rational Psychology Research Institute in Munich, include a greater capacity for multitasking and a willingness to consider possibilities and relationships that would be excluded or overlooked by the old brain. On the other hand, the new brain has a high tolerance for contradiction and dissonance (discord in a process that would otherwise be harmonious), a narrowed sensory response, and reduced ability to critically reflect and synthesize. While there are similarities between certain behavior patterns of the new brain and a hypnotic trance, the new brain has the potential for creative and novel thought.
Regarding these findings, the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt points out that these apparently different functions of the brain reflect structural or neuronal changes and concludes that by the middle of this century the new, fast brain will be established, and the "future will be in every head."5
Pervasion of entertainment throughout all areas of human experience is the fourth barrier to teaching. It blurs the line between entertainment and serious thought. After discovering that pure news programming could never pay for itself, the television networks restructured news as entertainment. Now, physically attractive people who represent the current cultural icon report the news. Sound and pictorial bits are sequenced so that viewers' attention won't lag and the programming does not demand sequential, logical thought. A prime example of this was the coverage of the Gulf War, particularly the carefully scripted news conferences held by General Norman Schwarzkopf. Was he really a general? Was the war real? Were people really being mutilated and dying in agony or was it just more TV entertainment? The popular TV show "Survivor" is perhaps the best example of blurring the line between real life and entertainment. The movie The Truman Show both illustrates the problem and contributes to it. A parable of our time, the film portrays a person raised on a movie set who, unbeknownst to him, is the star of a nightly TV program about his life. Truman, like one of Plato's prisoners in the cave, knows nothing else, mistaking the shadows cast on the cave walls for the things themselves.
Blending the passive activity of being entertained with the more active state of logical thinking leads to larger problems in distinguishing between what is real and what is a manufactured representation or facsimile. As discussed above, electronic imaging may well have a hypnotic effect on viewers, rendering them less capable of making critical, logical judgments.
All of the previously mentioned barriers contribute to the increasingly accelerated pace of life in American society. There are physiological, psychological, sociological, economic, and spiritual consequences resulting from maintaining this pace. The fifth barrier, vacating of one's inner life in favor of a reactive external life, is the one that most undercuts the art of teaching. Walking or even driving a car used to provide an opportunity for inner reflection. Now, drivers are regularly distracted by the radio or CD player and a cell phone simultaneously. Wherever we turn, there are audio and visual distractions. TV and radio are designed to attract and hold attention for brief periods. Unless we make a conscious effort to focus inward, our entire life can be spent in endless distractions that keep us from our true selves.
The corporate-controlled, computer-manipulated, commodified, and entertainment-barraged consumer has little chance in our society to develop a connection with his or her real, inner self. Without that connection, teaching is at best, dispensing information and at worst, shaping indiscriminate consumers to benefit multinational corporate interests.
The art of teaching is being challenged today in ways that perhaps it never has been before. How, in the context of contemporary society, can we as teachers reach or even approximate the ideals so essential to our art? What does it portend for human thought as we have known it if we risk allowing our brains to undergo actual structural changes because we use electronic information tools?
In an increasingly interdependent and complex world, perhaps the most fundamental quest that teachers at all levels need to pursue is that of becoming facilitators for our students as they come to know themselves in a culture that offers a thousand forces that oppose that goal. one face-to-face
Dr. George Eastman teaches in Berklee's General Education and Music Business/Management Departments. A licensed clinical psychologist, he has a private practice and is president of Right Livelihood Career Analysis. He is currently researching the effects of electronic imaging on the brain at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.