I watched an interesting episode of The Big Bang Theory the other day that neatly encapsulates many of the problems with traditional models of education. In "The Cornhusker Vortex," Leonard, a physicist, wants to learn about football in order to fit in with his girlfriend's friends when they watch the football game. He begins the process by watching recorded games and pausing them for analysis, looking up confusing terms in the index of Football for Dummies. ("Scrimmage... scrimmage...") Eventually, his roommate Sheldon (a theoretical physicist who was unwillingly subjected to football as part of his East Texas upbringing) becomes frustrated with Leonard's slow progress and offers to serve as a gatekeeper into the rarefied world of football.
By game day, Leonard has mastered basic knowledge of the rules of the game, but the viewing experience does not go as planned. First, he mistakes a championship game replay for live footage, and then he makes social blunders like overexplaining concepts with which other viewers would already be familiar and analyzing the plays using unnecessarily sophisticated vocabulary.
To what degree has Leonard "learned" football?
He certainly has a theoretical grasp of the game's rules. He is able to explain it and analyze the plays. He has not learned the skills necessary to play it himself, but arguably, neither have any of the other viewers. Yet the humor in this episode derives from the fact that, despite all his knowledge, Leonard has not actually learned what he needed to fulfill his objective: how to fit in socially while watching a game of football.
Why is this?
Situated learning theory would suggest that Leonard failed in his objective because he tried to divorce the information from the social context that would give it meaning. He approached watching the game through books instead of through experience--and many of the social cues he needed to understand could only be observed, translated, and internalized by watching a game with others in a natural setting. His vocabulary came across as artificial because he learned using an academic model rather than through accumulated years of experience watching football games, as the others had.
Ironically, Leonard already possessed many of the skills he needed. Despite his protests, he does understand the concepts of competition, trash-talking, and empathetic identification with a team, as evidenced by his previous experiences with the Physics Bowl, dueling robots, and kite fighting. Yet he did not see those skills as related or transferable. Ultimately, he was not able to connect his new knowledge to his previous experiences or integrate it meaningfully into his life--and therefore, this attempt at learning was little more than a failed experiment.