My first introduction to Michael Wesch was through a video posted on YouTube entitled “The Machine is Us/ing Us.” I wasn’t the only person introduced to him that day. What started as a video discussing digital communications with his colleagues, was within a few short days the most talked about video on the Internet, and has now been viewed literally millions of times.
I didn’t realize until later that Michael was a college professor. One who was really rethinking his role as a teacher. Many of Professor Wesch’s ideas meld neatly with the andragogy that we investigate in our Adult as Learner course.
This October, I was reintroduced to Wesch through another video which was making the rounds on the Internet. “A Vision of Students Today” was video made by Wesch with his introductory anthropology seminar, engaging the participation of his students. All couple hundred or so of them. Clearly, this was no traditional lecture class.
After viewing this latest video through the lens of a graduate program in instructional design, I determined I needed to discover a little more about Professor Wesch. With a little digging, I discovered a guest blog post of his at a blog called Savage Minds. “A Brief Philosophy of ‘Anti-Teaching’” is Wesch’s description of the techniques he is auditioning on his students at Kansas State University.
He found himself teaching two and four hundred students at a time. The only tools he was given was the tradition of college lecturing. And much of his audience was only there because the course fulfilled requirements for graduation. Many didn’t not know what “Anthropology” even was before stepping into the classroom. Student motivation was clearly low, and participation seemingly oppressed by the logistics of an en-masse classroom environment. Anyone brave enough to ask a question, would also have to be brave enough to ask it in front of 399 of their neighbors.
Wesch wanted to convey information about anthropology, yes, but more so, he wanted to create “active, lifelong learners, with critical thinking skills.” Critical thinking requires asking great questions, and answering great questions with more great questions.
Unfortunately such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large mandatory introductory courses. Much more common are administrative questions such as, “What do we need to know for this test?” This may be the worst question of all. It reflects the fact that for many (students and teachers alike), education is a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create. I don’t think it is the student’s fault for asking this question. As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces this question. If we accept Dewey’s notion that people learn what they do, the lecture format which is the mainstay of teaching (especially in large introductory courses) teaches students to sit in neat rows and to respect, believe, and defer to authority (the teacher). Tests often measure little more than how well they can recite what they have been told.
Clearly, this format is losing college-aged students’ interests, just as we see that non-participatory formats don’t motivate adult learners. To motivate the students, we find Wesch establishing inclusion and enhancing meaning with his techniques, a la Wlodkowski’s Motivational Framework. [Source, Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults ( or Amazon link)]
But while the sheer numbers of students are a burden in one sense, there is also tremendous potential. Think of the knowledge and life experience that is in that single room, if only I could find a way to harness it! I wanted the students to be fully engaged, talking to one another, grappling with interesting questions, and exploring any and all resources to find answers (and more questions).
Wesch takes his position as “teacher” and converts it to a learning manager, aggregating information his class created and directing a product of their experience, the video “A Vision of Students Today”. He clearly takes what could be a bad situation, an enormous class with the potential loss of human connectivity, and made the best use of the situation. This inclusion makes all the difference.
Wesch cites Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (or Amazon link) as a major influence of his, and I now have that high on my own reading list. The authors make the argument that teachers should concentrate on the learning environment they create at least as much as the content, or message, they have set out to express.
The classroom is the means, not the ends, of the information that circulates within it. So teaching to the test is a good idea… when you realize the test isn’t multiple choice, it’s life.