Immediately following last Wednesday’s class, I heard something that changed the way that I look at not only this course, but also the way that I perceive learning. To start, I got into the habit of listening to podcasts because I had a job a couple of years ago that required me to travel over an hour for work. To kill the time–and prevent myself from dying in a fiery, though peacefully somnolent, accident–I figured that podcasts would be a good way to keep me focused and entertained on my way to and from work. I’ve since kept up this habit, and am now a shameless addict. I can hardly spend time alone, or do chores, or run errands without my earbuds in. Wednesday evening, on my way home, I listened to a podcast produced by Cracked.com, a comedy website that focuses on poking fun at and over-analyzinf popular culture (movies, television, music, history, etc.).
In it the podcasters were talking about how the generation gap is a myth, how we have this perception that each successive generation is essentially getting dumber, and things will never be as good as they were in the “good ‘ol days.” One of the most intriguing explanations for debunking this myth was the Flynn Effect, which according to every lazy researcher’s friend, Wikipedia, is “the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day.” Essentially, James Flynn, a political scientist, studied the scores for IQ tests across generations, dating back to the 1930s. What he found was that not only are we progressively getting smarter with each generation–students 10 years younger than the previous generation are on average 3-5 IQ points smarter. If tested to today’s standards, students in the 1930s would be classified as mentally retarded. But before all you Beliebers start handing out dunce caps to your grandparents for not understanding your music or Youtube or for thinking that a “tweet” is just the sound a bird makes, know that it’s a little more complicated than that.
Flynn figured out that as each generation’s intelligence grows, so does the environment around those individuals. Intelligence and environment are relative to each other, and as the environment of an individual grows more and more complex, that individual must learn how to adapt to his or her environment in order to thrive. Think about it: since 1930, not only has literacy risen exponentially, but thanks to the web, we have a seemingly infinite amount of information at our fingertips. We multi-task, and speak in our own jargon. Our outreach grows more and more expansive everyday. We’ve had to grow more intelligent because our environment is consistently growing more and more complex, and vice versa. We are all bricoleurs, as Claude Levi-Strauss says, craftsmen using the tools available to us to thrive in an ever more complex world. Flynn calls this “equipment.” To throw someone from the 1930s into today’s world would, aside from making a trite movie premise, be like asking a blind man to describe color. By conventional standards, he would be ill-equipped to accomplish such a task.
Speaking of color… To better illustrate the complexity of our world compared to that of the past, let’s look at the work of Homer. In 1858, scholar and future Prime Minister of Great Britain William Gladstone, noticed that Homer had a few turns of phrase which seemed a bit peculiar to modern audiences. One famous example is when describing the ocean, Homer referred to it as the “wine-dark sea.” I’ve only been to the beach a handful of times, and not once did the water look like red wine–and you can rest assured that if it did, I would have stayed comfy and cozy in my air-conditioned hotel, thank you very much. This isn’t the only instance of this kind of strange color description. Gladstone continued: “Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet; honey is green.”
Gladstone’s explanation was that colors, as we know them, didn’t exist back in the time of ancient Greece. Blue in particular, as we conceptualize it today, didn’t exist. In fact, further academics found that the same is true for all cultures. Of all the colors to be studied, blue is consistently last on the list. The reason for this is that, aside from the sky and the sea, maybe a bird here and there (and blue eyes), ancient civilizations didn’t often encounter blue in nature. There was no reason to differentiate blue things from other non-blue things because there were so few of them. If you wanted to describe something as blue, you could compare it to the sky in spring or the sea on a clear day. The world was not complex enough to need differentiation between blue and non-blue.
Now all of this brings us back to our discussion for class. Taking what Ken Robinson said about learning, about fostering a love of learning, “a curiosity,” we should keep in mind that using the tactics that worked to teach students for past generations, are not always the appropriate tools to teach students today. We have evolved beyond the “traditional” modes of teaching, beyond chalkboards and handwriting. We now live in a multi-modal, ever-changing, ever-consuming, complex society, that is constantly evolving and expanding. Students today use the tools available to them to learn, and those tools are very different than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago and have more untapped potential than ever before. If we are to usher education and pedagogy in the 21 Century and beyond, we need to do so by staying ahead of the game, by learning new trends, new technology, to constantly continue to grow, change, and evolve, alongside our students. Progress only moves in one direction and we have to keep the engine running, otherwise we are all lost in our own “wine-dark sea.”
To check out more on the Flynn Effect here is James Flynn presenting a TED Talk.
To read a rather fascinating article about the color blue in culture, check this out.
And to check out the podcast that sparked this whole post, click on this link. Disclaimer: there is some adult language, as it is a comedy podcast. However, if it is your thing, I recommend checking out more of their episodes.