Marshall McLuhan as Educationist, Part 4: Cool Pedagogy & the Elimination of Lectures

13Nov13

Scholars at a Lecture (1736) by William Hogarth [the attending scholars look bored]

This is an excerpt from a copyrighted article of the same title published by me, Alex Kuskis, in (2011) Explorations in Media Ecology, 10(3&4), pp. 313-333. This is Part 4 and additional excerpts from this essay will be published in future postings.

Twelve Major Themes in McLuhan’s Commentaries on Education

A close reading of McLuhan’s major and minor publications, especially those focused on education and learning specifically, identifies a list of repeated themes that reoccur in different books and articles. Twelve themes have been identified for this study, which together amount to a coherent vision of how education should be conducted in the post-literate electronic age.

1. “Cool” Pedagogy

“Cool” pedagogy is a term originated by the author of this article, not by McLuhan himself, though the idea derives from McLuhan’s distinction between a hot medium and a cool one, which he explained for Playboy Magazine: “… a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes; hot media are low in participation, or completion, by the audience and cool media are high in participation” (McLuhan, 1969a). McLuhan argued that pedagogy should be “cool”, so as to invite learner participation, interaction and involvement, not the traditional transmission of knowledge in classrooms, lectures and books. In one of his letters, McLuhan quotes Francis Bacon on the desirability of teaching “broken knowledge” because: “… aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire farther; whereas Methods, carrying the show of a total” do not (Molinaro et al, 1987, p. 444). Teachers shouldn’t try to tell everything about any subject being studied, but rather should allow learners to discover portions of the topic for themselves. McLuhan advocated discovery learning, whereby students would find things out for themselves by working collaboratively on topics that interested them.

2. Elimination of Lectures 

The need to eliminate lectures follows from the idea of cool pedagogy, lectures being a “hot” medium and therefore low in participation. Lectures promote passivity and non-involvement, knowledge transmission with little retention, not knowledge construction. McLuhan and Leonard wrote in a LOOK Magazine article (1967):

“Lectures, the most common mode of instruction in mass education, called for very little student involvement. This mode, one of the least effective ever devised by man, served well enough in an age that demanded only a specified fragment of each human being’s whole abilities. There was, however, no warranty on the human products of mass education.”  (Mcluhan & Leonard, 1967)

In his short book titled “Counterblast” two years later, McLuhan concluded: “The lecture is finished in the classroom” (1969b, p. 72). But that declaration was premature, as only in the last decade have educators, especially in higher education renewed criticisms of lectures as the primary pedagogy in institutional education (Honan, 2002; Mazur, 1996).

A math lecture at Helsinki University of Technology
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2 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan as Educationist, Part 4: Cool Pedagogy & the Elimination of Lectures”

  1. Graham, there’s lots of support for McLuhan’s take on this, as well as Bacon’s. Just last week I found this article, “Lectures Didn’t Work in 1350—and They Still Don’t Work Today”, in The Atlantic at http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/lectures-didnt-work-in-1350-and-they-still-dont-work-today/281514/. Here’s the relevant section:-

    “You point out to another problem—that teachers often give out too much information, in the form of answers, rather than leaving questions open-ended”.

    “That’s one of the reasons we came up with “Knights of Knowledge” videos. They’re basically driving questions to stimulate a project, but they have just enough information to set the context of the question. The trick is knowing when to stop. We had a very funny experience in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I showed a video of a church in Lisbon, Portugal, that was built in the 13th, early 14th century that was not only a church but also a fort. The question was: Why did churches at that time need to look like forts? There was a history teacher in the front row who said, “Well that was because…” and I said, “Don’t give the answer.” He did, and I said, “Okay, now we’ve taken away the opportunity for the kids to have that discussion themselves.” We’re all proud of our content expertise. I’m proud of my content expertise, and yes, I love sharing it. But there are times to do that and times not to do that. If your goal is to have kids think and solve problems, you need to know when to give information and when to stop giving information. And that’s an art.
    The clip in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the teacher asks, “Anyone? Anyone?” and just gives the answer and keeps on going illustrates the problem perfectly. It’s a little too close to the truth”.


  1. 1 Bacon on Aphorisms | grahamlarkin

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