Saturday, November 7, 2009

An optimistic look at today's popular culture

I just finished reading Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter, by Steven Johnson. Johnson argues that today's consumers are ingesting more and more complexity than ever before. Examples are the multiple threading in shows like 24 and The Sopranos (in contrast with the half an hour closed plots in the shows of yesteryear); and the myriads of cultural allusions and self-referencing allusions in The Simpsons and Seinfeld. The book's chapter on all the probing, problem-solving and decision-making that occurs during video games was revealing to me, as was the assertion that blogging about your junior high love life is intellectually more healthy than watching a soap opera.

Children, teens, and adults are now interacting with technology in ways that allow them to problem-solve and create in ways equally or even more complex than a doing a math problem or a story writing project.

Aside from the book being merely interesting, I think this book has a major ramification for me as a teacher. I underestimate my students' potential. Every family has a running joke about how their seven-year old can program the VCR when their parent cannot. But does anyone stop to consider the problem-solving abilities that that fact infers? That child did not merely learn the steps to work one machine; he has internalized overriding principles about how to probe a new system and find out how it works.

So yesterday in second grade music we somehow ended up talking about Tom and Jerry, which apparently is experiencing a renaissance on Cartoon Network. I have one learning disabled student who has, for two years, been singing monotone but experienced a very obvious breakthrough in her singing just this week. During the Tom and Jerry conversation, I sat back, enjoyed that student's very specific, multiple-step instructions about how to find Tom and Jerry On Demand, and thought about the vast potential that she has.

I am reminded of one of my graduate professors favorite pedagogy images - that of constantly working to keep the students' heads barely above water - not submerged and overwhelmed, not wading in shallow water and bored. In this respect I could take a cue from the gaming, cinema and television industries and keep my kids' brains engaged.

Next on my reading list to get the other side of the coin: Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do about It by Jane Healy.

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