Reflecting on Wesch's Wonder and Big Questions

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Consultants at the Schreyer Institute have just returned from the annual conference of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD). One of the speakers at the event was Michael Wesch. He teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University where he studies social media and its effects on society. Dr. Wesch may be familiar...His class's YouTube video called A Vision of Students Today went viral several years ago.  His talk at this year's POD conference was one of the most inspiring and hopeful messages I've heard in a long while. He talked about our need to instill 'wonder' in the 'Age of Whatever.' The talk didn't begin with optimism, but it ended that way.

There were two parts of his message that I think have important implications for faculty in higher education (not to mention for teachers, parents, mentors, etc. everywhere). The first is that we must give students what Wesch called 'the gift of big questions.' It's true that students ask the small ones...Will this information be on the test? How long does the paper have to be? But our job is to get them thinking about the BIG questions, the ones that inspire a quest for knowledge, understanding, and application. The small questions don't change the world, but the big questions can.

The second big message for me was related to the first but focused more on technology. If we inspire wonder and big questions, then technology becomes an invaluable tool for communicating, information seeking, information sharing, and problem-solving. If we fail in this regard, then technology is essentially just distraction. (Interestingly, the other plenary speaker at the conference was Alex Soojung-Kim Pang who spoke about the Distraction Addiction. His book by this title is due out next year.) When wonder and big questions drive social media interaction then Facebook, for example, becomes a means of social change, not a distraction from learning.

This is not rocket science. It's not new information. But Wesch's was a poignant--and for those of us in the room, graphic--reminder of what's at stake and why it's important. It was also a hopeful message, if we can inspire in our students a sense of wonder by giving them the gift of big questions, then their thinking and their engagement with technology find purpose. 

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I guess the big question for educators is how to make students care about what is important beyond the vocational pursuit. Maybe this question should start years before college, before entertainment-oriented social networks occupy the vacuum. Here is Wesch's post on why good classes still fail (http://mediatedcultures.net/smatterings/why-good-classes-fail/), and an excellent comment by Mary: "students in secondary schools and universities need more personal, more active and more engaging instructors." I would say students need to be surrounded by role models. The more digital their life becomes, the more coaching from an exemplar model they need, whether that's through technology or not.

One of the things that impressed me about Wesch's talk was its focus on the emotional component of teaching and learning. All the elements of his talk -- words, images, music -- were carefully designed to get the audience involved on an emotional as well as intellectual level.

I think that kind of emotional involvement can be crucial to helping students connect to the big questions Crystal mentioned -- or as Qi said, to encourage students to care about more than a job.

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