Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mind the Education Gap

Schools can learn a lot from television. After all, a class in school and a television show both aim to tell a story: whether it be the history of Rome or the adventures of Arthur. Moreover, television succeeds: it holds the attention of millions of children every day.

How does television construct its narratives to string people along, begging to see the next episode?
Sean O’Sullivan, a professor of English at Ohio State, delivered a lecture last Friday in which he examined the power of serials. He explained how serials—from Dickens novels to the TV show Lost—engage audiences through a push and pull of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

O’Sullivan posited three parts of a serial: “the new, the old, and the gap.”

“The new” is the excitement of the next installment. “The old” is the nostalgia for what readers or viewers fell in love with originally—often the beloved Season One. But maybe most important is “the gap,” a period of time between parts of a serial—the week between new episodes or the summer between seasons.

The gap is the time when viewers fill in for themselves what might come next. They spin their own theories and revel in the manifold endings which exist simultaneously in their own minds.

How can education exploit the power of serials to engage students?

Teachers need to write, direct and produce a TV series for the classroom. They need to continually satiate the desire for “the new,” in other words, the genuinely interesting content. They need to refer back to “the old,” to beloved books and ideas which fired up interest in years past. They need to construct “the gap” by opening up spaces in their students’ knowledge, whetting an appetite for more of “the new” to fill them.

Like television, which is constructed in discrete parts called episodes and seasons, education is organized into parts called class periods and years. In order to sustain the energy from day to day and year to year, educators must tease students, keeping them guessing what the next piece in the puzzle might be.

O’Sullivan examined the widespread anxiety and dissatisfaction surrounding the end of serials. Anyone who knows a Lost fan knows the worry that questions won’t be answered, that the loose end they’ve been carrying since Season One will remain untied up.

Fortunately, education will not suffer from this problem. Education is a lifelong process. It is an open ended serial. Gaps in knowledge can always be opened and then filled.

In college, the gap should become a gulf. An essential experience of an undergraduate education should be the soul-crushing revelation that one’s knowledge is pathetically small.

College students, even the best ones, should at some point hit a brick wall. They should encounter something that is more than “really hard,” something literally impossible to understand. If it takes reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, so be it.

At this point, it is your responsibility, not your professors, to see those mind-numbingly large gaps and start filling them. If college is easy, you’re doing it wrong.

[Originally published March 29, 2010 in Indiana Daily Student, "A gap in education"]

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