Thursday, February 17, 2011

Learning in "The Cornhusker Vortex"

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.


  1. This is how I see literacy - as situated. The ability to interact appropriately within a context. So to be literate in physics and to be literate in football - 2 different things. So I was so excited to read this. I love the example, relating something familiar to a difficult concept demonstrates your understanding, you connected it to a theory (and correctly), and pointed out the transferability of generalizable skills. But admittedly you hit my sweet spot.

  2. Very fun example Kelli! I don't regularly watch Big Bang Theory, but I often think I should. :)

    This is certainly a great example of making sure the teaching/learning activities fit the subject at hand (i.e. book learning doesn’t translate very well to sports and social engagements). Leonard also misdiagnosed what he actually needed to learn. Learning about football was only one part of the whole. What he really needed to learn about was the social dynamic of watching a football game with friends. This should be a reminder to us, as future-librarians/teachers, that we need to identify the larger goal of a lesson/unit and provide relevant learning activities that prepare students to reach that goal.

  3. Hi Kelli,
    I like your use a television show to illustrate situated learning theory. Leonard's story made me think of the YA novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime in which the narrator struggles with many everyday interactions because he is autistic. He is in his zone with numbers but is completely flummoxed when he needs to read facial expressions or navigate getting from point A to point B on the train. (This demands more instinctual ways that can't be learned in a book.)

    Anyway, thanks for your posting--the wheels are turning in my brain in terms of "divided" learning experiences and how we might avoid this and attempt to make learning experiences more holistic.

  4. Mary Ann - I'm glad you liked the example. The Big Bang Theory deals heavily with the fish-out-of-water scenario: placing people in contexts where their normal "rules" no longer apply. In a sense, it's exaggerated social literacy.

    (Side note: did I use an appropriate level of citation, or would you prefer full APA citations and such for future posts?)

    Kimberly - You should totally watch The Big Bang Theory! And you were spot-on about Leonard misdiagnosing what he needs to learn. But the fact that such a smart person can misread a situation in that way highlights how complicated a seemingly simple scenario most people take for granted can be. (Also, it's a good showcase for the multiple intelligences theory: Leonard demonstrates high logical-mathematical intelligence, but much lower interpersonal this context, anyway.)

    Kathleen - I should read that book! I've been meaning to get around to it. Leonard definitely isn't autistic (although my roommates and I have had long arguments about whether Sheldon is--some of the humor in this episode came from the fact that for once, Sheldon is the one helping Leonard in a social situation), but he struggles sometimes with interacting with people who don't see the world the way he does. (His parents were both super-scientific, which explains his social conditioning.)

    As far as creating holistic learning experiences goes, I think it involves a major shift in what we see as the goal of education. The environment at large would have to support holistic learning before it could be successful. Otherwise it would only ever be half-implemented at best, and thus only ever partially effective.

  5. I'm not to sure where to post, but Neoliberalism is a set of economic policies that espouses privatization, deregulation and the primacy of the market. In general, Neoliberalism subordinates the public sphere to the private. In so far as its application to my post, in some communities (mostly poor and minority), public education is being subjected to market forces euphemistically referred to as ‘reforms’. And in my opinion, some of these reforms are counterintuitive to the mission of public education. Like Marxism, Neoliberalism is a tool for analysis.

  6. Leonard also would have been better served listening to sport radio where he could pick up the sport ethos, the lingo and the overall sports culture. Shows like ESPN Mike and Mike is very accessible to the casual fan and extremely informative. The information from the radio medium is very transferable.

  7. I love Big Bang Theory! You might also want to pick up The IT Crowd, which features a couple of British nerdy-types who often mess up social situations. In one episode, they memorize set phrases to discuss the football (soccer) match the night before and relate better to "manly" types. Here's a link to a great scene:

    The premise of the episode you mentioned is funny because of our own expectations of what it means to be "smart". It's entertaining to watch someone out of his own element, especially if that person is considered traditionally very intelligent.

    Actually, what it makes me think of is the video Mary Ann sent of Sir Ken Robinson talking about how the educational system of the past 150 years or so has made those who don't fare well in lecture-student classrooms as stupid or unintelligent. The way some people can analyze and discuss sports is way beyond my comprehension, yet they may not be considered "smart". Why not? Maybe a teacher could actually access that kind of intelligence in a classroom and steer a student toward a real, satisfying learning experience. It wouldn't be funny watching a football player in a physics classroom, making tons of mistakes.

    I absolutely love The Curious Incident... by the way! One of my favorites!