Words don’t need to move in order to be moving

5th February 2016 at 00:00

I played a trick on my students the other day. They were plodding – sorry, bounding like terriers – through the Cosmological Argument, which, as you no doubt remember, is the argument that a necessary being’s existence is inferred a posteriori from change, causality and motion. They were of course, lapping it up like kittens, animated by nothing more than the joy of learning and the simple pleasure that only really, really dry theology can confer.

Just in case they lost their thread, I decided to mix up their modalities, blend their VAK schema, and engage them with multimedia learning – in other words, all the things that people do instead of just teaching. In short, I played them an audio clip. I told them it was like a podcast. There’s a fascinating debate that Bertrand Russell and F C Copleston had about this, broadcast in 1948 on BBC radio, and fortunately our brave new world affords us such gems at our fingertips.

I cued it up for the class, because there are few better ways to encourage listening, higher-order thinking and demonstrating high expectations of literacy and language appreciation than going to the source, and using primary texts as much as possible. The soft bigotry of low expectations plays out many ways, and we’ve all been guilty at times of chewing up food for our kids a bit too much and too often. And sometimes it’s for our benefit, not theirs, saving us the need to explain and unpick their difficulties, while we save them from thinking at the same time.

YouTube played, and they watched, and their reaction was interesting, and perhaps the trick. Some of them were shocked when the pictures didn’t move, and all they were treated to was a few interchanging slides depicting the sour prunes of their octogenarian portraits, fashionably (for the 1940s) stern of brow and visage. “It needed pictures,” said one, who was no slouch in the smarts. But it didn’t; moving pictures would have been one more layer of data to process, and given that the conversation required every baud of bandwidth as it was, just to keep up 10 paces behind them, adding more signal would have jammed their antennae.

It’s an odd thing, to be so acclimatised to moving pictures and sound, locked in a Siamese embrace forever. Listening to a conversation with nothing for their eyes to focus on seems to them, I suppose, as odd as watching a silent film is to Generation X. Watch any news bulletin and consider the effort and forethought that goes into creating even 10 seconds of useful reportage; words and pictures have to tell two stories, but in such a way to tell a bigger one together. Otherwise, it’s as pointless as standing in front of a PowerPoint and reading from it like a script.

But the sacrifice made is depth and complexity of content. Listening without the training wheels of eye candy forces us to do something we’re not used to: listening as an activity separate from all others; listening as something intrinsic and profound and valuable; really listening. It’s a level of focus that we don’t do very often. We like to be distracted by five things at once. We watch television and surf the net, all while talking to our partners. Afraid of committing to one thing, we hedge our interest by splitting our focus.

But they got there in the end; everything is learnable. I’ll be playing this trick a lot in the future.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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