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What I Learned This Week: Here Are The Crayons

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Since January, I've been teaching a somewhat different type of course at McGill University. While saddled with the unfortunate standard curriculum name "Marketing and Society," the class is anything but.

Given carte blanche, I put together more of a "marketing TO society" approach, and focused on the YouTube platform for students to learn about group dynamics, react to real-time changes, and integrate it in a corporate context. There are no "papers" per se, no doorstopper textbook and no multiple-choice or essay tests. The "final exam" is the actual launch of a seven-video-minimum YouTube channel, worth 40 per cent of the overall grade. You can read more about this experimental and experiential learning experience here and in this student perspective.

Now, with the course entering its final two weeks, some of my students are coming to the realization that what once sounded like a utopian fantasy ("Wow! No tests! No papers! No 200-page readings!") has now morphed into a Faustian bargain of sorts ("Christ! We have to write a script! And shoot! And edit! And optimize for YouTube's search algorithm! And incorporate social media! And...")

My immediate answer to some of the heavier sighs was: "What did you think? That this was a fluff course? That there wasn't going to be any work?"

But I don't actually believe that it's the amount of work that has some of my students in a tizzy; it's the DIFFERENT nature of the work that may be throwing them.

When I first put this course together, I had a discussion with two academics I respect immensely, Prof. Morty Yalofsky of McGill (who used to be MY stats prof in my undergrad years) and Prof. Pete McGraw of the University of Colorado at Boulder (and co-author of the upcoming book "The Humor Code"). Both told me the same thing:

As much as students have evolved outside the classroom, inside they seem most comfortable with traditional means of teaching and learning within it.

This reminded me of something I experienced many moons ago at summer camp during arts and crafts period, the traditional land of sewn leather wallets, wood burning tools and gimp bracelet weaving.

Our A&C teacher was this hippie-type named Earl (oh, how I wish I could remember his family name!). A soft-spoken guy with long ringlets of hair and round John Lennonesque glasses, Earl tried to break away from the tried-and-true, tired ol' art projects by introducing a group of somewhat spoiled 11-year olds to a long-term project I remember now only as "sand moulding."

In essence, Earl wanted us to to carve out a design in a dense sand material, heat and colour some plastic goo, pour the goo into the sand, and once everything dried, chip and brush away the sand to reveal our hardened plastic masterpieces.

Now the plastic smelled like death, handling it with the sand was tactilely repulsive, which made the whole process haphazard and messy. Instead of embracing the madness, I whined and complained: "Ughh! It's gross! And it stinks! And it's getting all over me! I think I'm going to puke!" (Please, please remember that I was only 11...)

Rather than lash out, and realizing he was dealing with some pint-sized rabble-rouser/shit-disturber, Earl gently pulled me aside, and sat me down at a table at the back of the A&C bunk.

Handing me a Tupperware box filled with broken nubs of coloured wax sticks, he calmly, deliberately said:

"Here are the crayons.

And here's a colouring book.

Please stay within the lines.

And be sure to have fun."

I forget my actual reaction then, and that of those around me, but I still gulp and feel the sting of the lesson whenever I recall it.

Which is why I resurrected it as part of the response to some of my students' apprehension.

And which is why it is the week's learning.

New anything is hard. But "institutional new" is harder still. Trying to change something that has remained the same for decades, maybe a century or two, is a magna-challenge.

But you have two choices when faced with the new:

1) GO WITH IT

2) OR GO GET THE CRAYONS