Teaching: The Medium is the Message

Is teaching online just as good as teaching in class? Is it better? Will the students want to come back to class next year, or will they just want to stay online? Is online teaching the same as classroom teaching – just in a different format? 

I’ll get back to these questions in a moment, but first I want to talk about a book I am re-reading. 

I know it’s good to keep up with current “teacher” books. I am currently reading Jeff Wilhelm’s new book (written with Rachel Bear and Adam Fachler), Planning Powerful Instruction (Grades 6 – 12). I have others on my stack of books I brought home from school. But I am also finding myself drawn to re-read some of the older teacher books that have made me the teacher I am today. 

I’ll be writing about a number of these books later, but for now I’d like to touch on one that was first published when I was two, in 1969: Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Just re-reading the first couple of chapters has made me realize how much the ideas in this book have become part of the DNA of my teaching.  

The second chapter, “The Medium is the Message, Of Course,” refers to Marshall McLuhan’s idea that a message will be influenced by the medium used to transmit that message. (Postman has written a whole book on just that subject called Amusing Ourselves to Death, a title that seems particularly apt right now.)  If you read a news story in a newspaper and watch a television news story about the same piece of news, the actual medium, print or TV, will influence how you experience and think about the story. 

Nicholas Carr has updated this idea in his Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and book The Shallows, and cites research indicating that we read “deep” in print and shallow on screens. The ethos of the internet is one of surface reading, skimming and skipping from link to link to link. You might be about to do it now reading this on your screen. 

In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, the authors make the case that in teaching, the medium is the message as well. They argue that schools of education, and schools, view the content of the class and the method used to teach the content as completely different things. I would argue that this view has not changed in the 51 years since the book was published. We tend to view that content is just information to be downloaded, and how we do it doesn’t matter. 

But delivery method matters. Telling students to answer questions instead of ask them sends a message. Telling students to regurgitate what they read rather than think and respond to it sends a message. Telling students to follow rote writing formulas sends a message. Over-reliance on rubrics that spell out exactly what to do to get a grade sends a message. Focusing on points and grades sends a message. Constantly focusing on individual standards rather than synthesizing skills into a coherent whole sends a message. Content may dictate form, but form also influences content. 

Which leads me back to my questions at the start of this post. Will the students want to come back to class next year, or will they just want to stay online? Is online teaching the same as classroom teaching – just in a different format? 

I’ve heard teachers on social media and in digital meetings say that many students prefer this model of learning because it’s self-paced. Two of my classes – my “regular classes” are on a nearly automated education platform where they watch little videos, answer multiple choice questions (which are automatically graded), and short answer questions which they self-check against a key. I need to look at their writing, though an algorithm gives them a “suggested” score. I’ve asked my students if they like this platform, and some do. When I ask them why they like it, they say something along the lines of, “I can get it over with sooner.” 

The medium is the message. This medium, which the ed tech industry touts as “personalized learning,” is essentially sending this message: education is about getting through a bunch of tasks as quickly as possible. Granted, this message is sometimes what gets transmitted in classes as well, when teachers teach like Mrs. Paquetts with her never ending piles of packets, but it doesn’t have to be like that. A digital platform really sends several messages through its medium, questions that should sound familiar: 

There are other messages, of course, but those are the ones that come to mind, having done most of these lessons for myself as a “student” to preview what my students would be encountering. 

Here are some of the messages I hope to convey in my class, not just by telling, but through the methods I use in my class: 

With my honors classes, I am still teaching using my materials through Microsoft Teams, and though I miss my students a lot, at least I feel like I can structure what we are doing in such a way that my methods are still sending at least some of the messages I want to send. I recently had those students write autobiographical fiction as a follow up to reading To Kill a Mockingbird and a lead in to reading my own autobiographical novel, Making My Escape. In a reflection about their writing process, one student said, “”I learned writing stories is more difficult than essays because it requires creativity, which is something we aren’t encouraged to use often in school.” The medium of school has sent this student (and others) a message: your creativity is not valued. 

What we teach and how we teach are inseparable. I don’t believe truly excellent teaching can ever be reduced to a series of digital worksheets that are “personalized” because students can finish them fast. 

As we sit in front of our screens through this strange, disembodied foray into digital teaching, here’s hoping that as we look ahead to being back in our classrooms, we think about not only our content, but our methods of delivery. We need to be better than digital worksheets, and the messages conveyed by our methods need to be compelling, motivating, and true. 

Whether we are online or in person, the medium is the message.