Binge-Learning

Do you binge-watch anything?

Come on, admit it.  It’s ok.

I’m currently binge-watching Penny Dreadful on Netflix.  I remember when it first started; and actually, I didn’t know about it until I saw a blurb about it on YouTube, as it revealed a major spoiler.  But when I discovered an essentially new version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I just had to check it out.

Even with this spoiler spoiled, the show was awesome: a combination of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and other assorted monsters sharing the same universe in Victorian London.  But even better was revealing the story-line in the best way: backwards.

The story opens with Ethan Chandler, an American gunfighter, being hired by Sir Malcolm Murray, the father of Mina Murray from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  The series kind of picks up after most of the events of Dracula, although the heroes don’t know that’s who they’re up against (that’s not a spoiler.)  Chandler is personally hired through a new character, Miss Vanessa Ives.  Almost immediately Chandler–and we–discover there’s some uncomfortable tension between Murray and Ives, which is revealed piece by piece, and episode by episode.  Penny Dreadful started on Showtime, but getting to watch it via Netflix allows one to see even clearer how these story arcs are threaded, so that in going back you pick up even more intently how the stories leaves those breadcrumbs for you, and you find the ones you missed the first (or second/third) time.

But all of the best stories do that.  They are so captivating that you must go back, simply to enjoy it again; but then you find yourself almost on an investigation.  Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re doing it because you’re still simply just in that cathartic enjoyment.  But then you realize or notice a line of dialogue, or a look or a motion of a character, and because you already know the main content, you’re able to pick up the smaller pieces, and it enriches the whole experience.  Stories like these are classics, not just because they’re timeless and can speak to all generations, but their content is so rich that it’s impossible to filter through all of it the first time.  And to go through it again and again, picking up those smaller pieces, is never a chore for those who are in love with the story.

What if learning could be like that….?

In the book The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan, who created the Khan Academy (which you can view on YouTube), writes about learning information and concepts as more of understanding versus absorbing and regurgitating. Not a new concept, but the part I appreciated was the idea of public education going to more of an environment and rhythm of teaching subject holistically rather than subject-to-subject, class-to-class.  For example, an excerpt of Khan’s:

Wouldn’t students find it useful to understand how contact forces (studied in phys­ics) are in fact an expression of the repulsive forces between electrons (studied in chemistry)? Wouldn’t algebra seem a tad more interesting if it could also be used to figure out how fast you hit the water on a belly flop or how heavy you would be on a planet twice Earth’s mass? For that matter, think about the interesting cross-pollination that might occur if a value-neutral subject like computer science were studied together with a value-laden subject like evolution; what might students learn by writing computer programs to simulate variation and com­petition in an ecosystem?

Many churches right now, like many public schools, are trying to figure out how to get different results, even though it’s proven really hard to change methods.  Many methods seem too new and unorthodox, or they’re simply things those in the system were not taught in their day, and it’s easier to stick to what one knows, even if one knows it no longer works. 

But what if we took the method of trying to teach and learn the way our favorite stories seem to tell the tale backwards: knowing the whole scope comprehensively, but revealing it as a mystery, piece by piece, intrigue by intrigue, with the spoiler–the knowledge–right there the whole time, so that when we revisit the idea, the concept, the lesson, it is wrapped up in the experience we had in learning it?

Maybe then many more of us–whether we are in school or not–would binge-learn the way we binge-watch….

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