Monday, November 7, 2011


Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either. - Marshall Mcluhan

The Ghosts of St. John's Ward

As I was walking to the conference, I realized that it was taking place in the heart of what was once known St. John's Ward. Bordered by Yonge, University, Dundas and Queen, the Ward was the roughest immigrant neighbourhoods in turn-of-the-century Toronto. I had read about it the night before in Imagining Toronto, which quoted a 1913 article entitled "Toronto's Melting Pot" that described it as an area of “slatternly decay” and “tumbledown houses”. It looks much better now.

I was honoured to discover that I was the first participant to register for the conference, a distinction which, unfortunately, did not come with a prize. I made my way to the main conference room, poured myself a complimentary coffee and began taking notes as McLuhanites from around the world gathered to pay homage to one of our city's great intellectuals.


While at the University of Toronto, McLuhan founded the Center of Culture and Technology where he collaborated with Edmund Carpenter on an innovative journal called Explorations. The purpose of the journal was to explore interdisciplinary studies and how various disciplines can find a common language.  Issue #7 included a piece called Classrooms Without Walls , a pseudo-poetic meditation on the importance of using media in education. He not only advocated for the use of media, but elsewhere recommends a “a part-time program of uninhibited inspection of popular and commercial culture.” Media and popular culture, if properly employed, become powerful educational tools, as they are engaging and relevant. 

The City as Classroom

James Joyce rightfully proposes the idea that the city is an amplification of the human mind, as it is entirely a creation of human intellect. This is in line with McLuhan's beliefs that technologies are all extensions of the human body. To live in the city, in effect, is to live in the mind and to explore the city, is to explore the mind. Whenever possible the city and all its resources, its history, its geology, its cultural offering should be leveraged for the purposes of education. Groups of students with handheld smartphones and/or touch pads could be sent to hunt and gather information with clear directives, bringing them out of the confines of the classroom. 

Similarly, simulations could be employed to similar ends. Using virtual spaces and synthetic worlds to break through the classroom walls and create interactive and experiential opportunities for students. 

Fun and Games 
Historically, the advent of agriculture allowed for specialization, which in turn created free time. In this age of abundance, free time is the rule, not the exception and thus entertainment has become an industry. Education strives to be entertaining, as this implies buy-in and engagement. Games and ludic activities are ideal forms of educational entertainment. They are engaging and interacive, but also microcosms of the real world. The use of games as educational tools would prove roundly beneficial. There are a number of books and articles that look at the possibility of distilling the engaging aspects of commercially successful video games in order to apply them to education. Alternately, it would be interesting to apply some of these concepts in the class, but not in terms of bringing video games into the class, but turning the class into a video game.

Games are inherently active and participatory. I strongly believe that a curriculum design based entirely on games and environmentally structured as an elaborate game would take student engagement and learning to new heights. Interestingly and relevantly, Oxford mathematician Lewis Carroll structured his semantic masterpieces "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through A Looking Glass" around games.

In Sum: Environments 

The sections above share the common theme of environments. As the world has been transformed around schools, little has changed from the one room schoolhouse. Students generally sit in rows in a rectangular room, the teacher stands at the front, chalk tablets have become iPads, and chalkboards are now Smartboards. Despite improved content delivery, the FORMS remain utterly unchanged. The form, however, is the MEDIUM and it is the medium (the environment) that has the most significant impact on social and cognitive dynamics, not the content. Consequently, for education to not only catch-up, but leap ahead, the environments where education take place must be transformed. Ideally, education would not be an imperfect preamble to the realities of the working world, but it would become a model to which the working world would strive. 

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