Watching some TED videos recently, I came across a Macolm Gladwell video where he discusses the history of Spaghetti Sauce and choice. In the video, Gladwell talks about how people don’t always recognize their needs or wants because they don’t possess the worldview to see things differently from how they’re experiencing it. He talks about Ragu and Prego spaghetti sauces and how Prego didn’t gain market share initially because consumers traditionally bought Ragu sauce and weren’t willing to try something different, even though marketing research showed they would prefer Prego over Ragu. Drawing on a Yiddish saying, Gladwell says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” In this simple quote, he captures that worldview concept. People sometimes have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the worldview concept and how I’m sometimes “a worm in horseradish.” This past semester, I had several sixth grade teachers from a local school district visit my class to speak to my students. After the presentation, the teachers answered questions from my students and one asked about how technology is used in their classrooms. One teacher responded that the school allows students to bring their own devices to class and that at any given time there might be a handful of students working on Kindles, laptops, iPads or iPod Touches. Other students may choose to take notes in a paper notebook, he explained, but he allows his students to make their own choices. The teacher then remarked that he was surprised that not a single one of my students was taking notes on anything but paper during his presentation. No one was working on a laptop or a iPad. He wondered whether he was seeing some generational differences between the populations. One of my students explained that many professors don’t allow the use of laptops or iPads because they find the devices distracting and unprofessional. The teacher laughed and said that his sixth graders managed just fine.
It’s hard sometimes to see past the world in which we’re working and see how our customs, norms and traditions are different from other places. We’re surrounded by our institution’s history and work with colleagues who mostly share common experiences. While newcomers can bring different worldviews and experiences, they can also be swept up into the traditions of the institution pretty quickly. Take the experiences shared by a colleague recently. Her daughter just finished her freshman year at another institution but is taking some summer classes at our school to get a little ahead. On her first day, she pulled out her laptop to take notes and then looked around. In the large lecture room, not a single other student had a device out. While no one explicitly communicated that the devices were not allowed, my colleague’s daughter put her’s away before the class even started. At her school, the daughter explained, she’d be a freak if she didn’t have some device to work on. At another institution, she was a freak for having one.
My intention with this post isn’t to say that the traditions or customs of one school is better or worse than another or that students using laptops or not using them somehow says something about the university. The post is intended to shed some light on those tacit norms that impact teaching and learning on our campuses. Each of us is “a worm in horseradish” in some way. Maybe the critical lesson to learn is from my colleague’s daughter whose eyes were opened when she traveled outside the world to which she was accustomed. Maybe we need those new experiences to expand our worldview and see how things are different outside the horseradish.