Give Me Five Minutes...
Bill Long 12/1/07
A Contemporary Approach to Learning*
[*The companion essay, "And I Will Give You the World," is here.]
As 2007 moves into 2008 it has become clear to me that we are facing a new and more challenging education and learning climate than at any time in the last century--with the possible exception of when the Sputnik crisis of the late 1950s led to dramatic transformations in math and science education in the US. The burden of this essay is to show not only how the world of American life and education has changed but to argue for a different method of teaching and learning for our day. In a nutshell it is captured by my title--give me five minutes, and I will give you the world. Let me explain.
Thesis # 1--The Internet has Changed Everything
Like it or not, the ever-more-dominant presence of the Internet in our lives is changing and will irrevocably change our understanding of everything related to learning--from the concept of what constitutes knowledge to the idea of an attention span in learning. The Internet has changed everything because of the idea that knowledge is instantly available on almost any question that can be raised. All you need to do is to know how to search for it. Of course, this doesn't mean that what is found on the Net is either correct, carefully nuanced or adequately criticized. But what it does mean is that because knowledge is so readily available and convenient, the pressure will be intense to get the correct information on the Net. The Net is now the first place that almost everyone turns to find knowledge about something with which they are not familiar. The Net is the place to find everything from recipes of favorite restaurants to athletic scores to stock prices to text and pictures of almost anything you want to see. Because of the convenience and accessiblity of the Net, that is the place where people will turn for all types of learning.
This doesn't mean that people will stop reading books or longer treatments of things; but what this thesis argues is that for most things about which we want knowledge in our day, we will increasingly turn to the Net for information rather than books, journals or scholarly periodicals. But, the type of writing that will constitute useful knowledge on the Net will be different than ever before..
Thesis # 2--Different Online Materials
Most people over 25 were educated, in higher education at least, through textbooks, primary sources or scholarly articles. There is no chance that these will fade away in the near future. But the presence of the Net in our lives means that a new type of written materials will be made available to people. I call it the "mini-essay," a 1000-1500 word essay on a particular topic. The biggest mistake of educators is to think that the Net is simply an alternative medium in which to put your textbooks and articles. But, it isn't. People's attention span is much shorter on the Net than it is with a textbook or an article. Why? Because the way searches are conducted in general means that people want information as quickly as possible. Thus, people will, in general, give you no more than five minutes to read and understand the concept that you are trying to present. They have a "five-minute" attention span on a Net page.
Thus, whatever concepts we educators want to introduce to the next generation have to be able to be put here in a form that can be read in 5 minutes or less. Rather than bemoaning our situation--about student attention spans, for example-- we should embrace this as our new reality and challenge. And, indeed, it is a great challenge and discipline to us who write to know our subject so well that we can give its essence in five minutes. If we can't do it in 5 minutes, then we need two essays...or three..or four. We need to reflect on how to divide our subject in bite-sized pieces so that it consists of one or a series of five-minute-read essays. That is what I have been trying to do on this site for the past few years. I will take a subject that is interesting to me or necessary for people to learn if they want to be informed about something, and I will break it down into "five-minute" segments. These segments are no longer than about 1200-1500 words. If I cannot explain the idea I am working on in this many words, my idea is still in a form too complex to explain. Everything can be explained in 1500 words; you just have to know how to do it. That is the new reality of learning that is the product of living with the Net today.
Thesis # 3--Students Want To Learn Today
I hear ex-colleagues complaining all the time that students don't have the discipline, patience or desire to learn today. My point is to the contrary. Students want to learn, but they want to learn in methods that fit their style of living. They are used to seeing images; they are used to staying in constant communication with their friends through "im-ing" or phones or text-messaging or other methods. They want to have instant and intimate connection not only with the people in their lives but with things they learn. There is no reason why knowledge can't be presented to them in ways that reflect the immediacy of their lives. They will learn the way they want to learn or are inclined to learn. Those of us who teach through our writing or speaking need to take cognizance of that.
We are in the brave new world of teaching and learning today. People will learn. They want to learn. But they want something, in general, that they can learn in five-minute chunks. As I think about it more and more, maybe they are onto something. Why did we older folk think that we could write an entire chapter or a book and think that it all "flowed?" Or, why did we think we could read lengthy tomes and believe that we really understood everything or even most of the things in it? Short essays are the way of the future in education. You better start writing them...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long