Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Of Mind and Media: How Culture's Symbolic Forms Affect Learning and Thinking

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Of Mind and Media: How Culture's Symbolic Forms Affect Learning and Thinking

Article excerpt

Media's symbolic forms of representation are clearly not neutral or indifferent packages that have no effect on the represented information, Mr. Salomon points out. Being part and parcel of the information itself, they influence the meanings one arrives at, the mental capacities that are called for, and the ways one comes to view the world.

Mind and media are allegedly two very different entities. One is taken to encompass the very essence of humanity - intelligence, emotion, compassion, will, and creativity; the other is often perceived as the cold, impersonal, dehumanizing, dull technology of the mass production of information for mass distribution. What could be more incompatible? And yet, history, research, and experience tell us that the two are intertwined in a number of ways. In this article I will briefly explore some of the relationships between mind and media as they pertain to education.

Technology as Metaphor

One way in which mind and technological media interrelate is through metaphors. Throughout the ages, technology has been employed as a metaphor to explain human nature.(1) Thus we have the ancient Biblical metaphor of man as clay on the potter's wheel, and, in the Middle Ages, man as God's clockwork. In the late 19th century we have the human psyche captured by the metaphor of the steam engine, with its hidden, bubbling boilers and its hierarchy of controlling valves. In the early 20th century, film (unlike the theater) was considered to capture the irregular, associative nature of human thinking and remembering,(2) and a bit later human communication was represented as a telephone switchboard. In the 1980s, mental imagery was compared to pictures on a television screen, and nowadays the mind and its workings are likened to the computer - and the computer, to the human mind.

Employing technology and the communications media as metaphors for human existence and the mind, interesting as it is, may not have much educational significance. Does it really matter whether the computer is seen as truly thinking like a human or as only metaphorically "thinking,"(3) or whether the "pictures in our mind" resemble the pixels, frames, and other qualifies of a TV screen? Ostensibly, metaphors are indeed only metaphors, and no educational or other implications should necessarily follow from them. However, the fact is that very important implications often follow from metaphors and other aids to perception. Consider, for example, the idea of the human mind as a computer (half-jokingly called "wetware"). It would follow from this conceptualization that the computer could serve as a genuine intellectual partner for its human peer. If that were the case, then the two could be seen as a single unit, and the development of the human intellect, in and of itself, would become unimportant. The joint human/computer system would be designed without any deliberate intentions for the cultivation of the human mind as a separate entity.(4) This would be very different from a design based on the premise that the computer is but a tool and the mind a separate entity to be developed for its own sake.(5)

Technology and mind also become interrelated in ways relevant to education through perceptions of learning and what it takes to promote it. When learning is metaphorically understood to be a matter of "absorbing" authority's teachings, then a chalkboard is just the right technology. When learning is understood as the reinforced connection of student responses to externally provided stimuli, then Skinner-box technology (or a worksheet) that offers small bits of fragmented information to which correct responses can easily be given and reinforced follows quite logically. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI), based as it is on the same kind of psychological understanding of learning, offers the same drill-and-practice pedagogy by means of a more advanced technology. Instructional television fits well with the old conception of learning as the relatively passive absorption of mainly concrete and attractively presented information. …

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