Student Behavior and Our Media

 Originally posted on Open Salon on February 21, 2011:

           More today about the behavior spectrum of today’s students.

            I explained in an earlier post that our entire society—adults and children alike—is strongly influenced by our mass media.  It helps to isolate and understand some important principles on which our media function.

            It is obvious that money drives the majority of media expression.  That money comes mainly through advertising.  That, however, brings us to what secures an audience to see or hear the advertisements.

            In all media, attention is the name of the game.  If no one notices, no one consumes.  In fact, attention even trumps money in many cases.  On one end of the spectrum, we have blogs like this one—free to post, free to read.  Many authors make nary a dime; they merely wish to exchange ideas with others.  On the other end we have last week’s Super Bowl, a mega-lucrative advertising bonanza not limited merely to 30-second commercial slots.  Everything between those two positions on the continuum involves some attempt to get attention.

            By far the most conspicuous purpose of our telecommunications media is entertainment.  From television shows to pop music to social networking.  Getting an audience requires ever more sensational and extreme gestures.  Andy Warhol’s remark that everyone in the future will be famous for fifteen minutes was very prophetic for just this reason.  Fewer movies today become classics as multiplex theaters are swamped with films with shorter runs before they are available on DVD.  Viral videos make fame accessible to the masses, and fame becomes quick and ephemeral.

            Additionally, it has become a strategy in the media not only to seek the attention of a mass market, but in some cases to appeal specifically to smaller segments of the population.  From this we see television shows—and even entire channels—that target the teenaged viewer or the home shopper or women or the gay community.  The fragmentation of the media audience may be a healthy and democratic thing, but as different forms of media expression appeal specifically to target demographics, we have fewer media references in common as a society.

            With all of the competition for a market, shock value is at a premium, as are raw sentiment and bizarre spectacle.  Nerve becomes a substitute for talent, and anyone who is merely clever may be mistaken for a genius.

            As all of this has come about, anything traditional, conventional, or quaint has become decidedly uncool.  This unravels many of the traditions and conventions—both good and bad—on which our society is based.  Indeed, it is good that racism, sexism, homophobia, and class elitism are no longer fashionable.  But education, maturity, honor, and politeness are the babies that may have been thrown out with the bathwater.

            This goes part of the way toward explaining what makes students—particularly adolescents—arrive at school unready or unwilling to learn.  This may also provide answers to why adults continue to evolve in their understanding of—or confusion about—what constitutes professionalism and the virtues of teaching and learning.  As Generation Xers begin to push into their late 40s, there are profound implications for how classrooms are run and schools are led.

            Proposed solutions range anywhere from overcompromise to a stubborn refusal to compromise at all.  On the one hand, educators must not ignore trends in media and with them ways to appeal and relate to students.  At the same time, however, teachers must not fail to stimulate critical thinking–as they well might if they dumb down curriculum and have students Tweet their homework assignments.

            The best things schools have going for them is six or seven hours of time that can be structured by mature and responsible adults.  When these adults are compelling and engaging, they command attention and respect for sustained periods of time, and they focus students on meaningful topics that transcend media gibberish.  And when such professionals collaborate with each other, curriculum and instruction become coherent, aligned, and relevant.

            Ironically, however, public policy appears to be looking the other way.  The ability of a teacher to relate to students and make them take interest in school is very meaningful but abstract and not quantifiable.  Test scores are concrete and numerical yet hollow.  And this is where we see the tail of the mass-media dragon lashing toward us.

            Public opinion increasingly favors simple-minded policy that would tie teacher pay to student test scores.  Tenure, say many, should be done away with.  These ideas have such resonance because they are propagated through sound bites in—wait for it—the media.

            Our greatest hope lies in the fact that media messages and their effects have increasingly short half-lives.  Also, people are more astute than most media expression would have us suppose.  As a society, we will ultimately get our system of public education right.  In the meantime, our schools will endure a great deal of disruption and expense that could be avoided.

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