Monday, March 5, 2012

Interview with Thomas Wendt

If students don't remember what they've learned can we really say they learned it?

From my perspective, too much of what we teach in school is ephemeral. Students may understand a concept, be able to apply it and even teach it to someone else, but if they don't retain the knowledge or the skills they've learned a year later do we call that "learning" or should we instead call it "exposure" or some less permanent-sounding word?

One of the main reasons people forget how to do things is because they haven't used the knowledge frequently enough. A teacher might do a good job getting students to the point where they can continue without help but for any true, lasting learning to take place the student usually has to actually continue to use it.

This is true for most learning, but some lessons stay with us forever. We usually only need exposure to the lesson "fire burns" one time, for example. That lesson creates a lasting impression on us.

If a lesson is quickly forgotten after it is taught, by definition it is not memorable. It would follow then, that the core mission of a teacher is to create lasting impressions about their content. Caring for students and mastering your content area are vital, but they are qualities a teacher needs to have, they aren't things a teacher needs to do.

Marketers can't help us care for students and they can't help us master our content area, but they can help us learn how to create lasting impressions. So I reached out to Thomas Wendt, a Digital Strategist from Ogilvy to learn a little bit about semiotics, meaning and memory. I'd be interested to read your comments on what Thomas and I discuss:

1. Viewed through the lens of a marketer, what is semiotics and how do "signs" connect to what you do? In semiotics, can all communication be considered a "sign" of one kind or another?

Thomas: There are a couple interesting definitions for what actually constitutes a sign. Ferdinand de Saussure, who some say is the "father of modern linguistics," defined a sign as the point at which signifier (any sound-image that represents something else) and signified (the mental concept of an object) come together to form language. So for Saussure, the sign is literally where language occurs. Umberto Eco famously defined a sign as "anything which can be used to tell a lie." He is referring to the idea that there is a definite distinction between an object and the representation of an object (whether a word, image, sound, etc).

I think we can simplify these definitions into something like "anything that has the ability to represent something else." So in essence, all communication is predicated on a system of meaning, which is constituted by signs. Communication is the interplay of individual signs to create a context in which meaning can be derived.

Within the marketing world, there are a small number of consultancies, mostly in the UK, that deal specifically with brand strategy from a semiotic perspective. Most of their work has to do with qualitative research into the ways consumers interact with brands and how those brands create various systems of meaning. But you don't even have to know what semiotics is to practice it. Most people I know in the marketing world have never heard of it, but they are semioticians...without even knowing it. Marketing, advertising, branding, strategy...pretty much anything an agency can do involves a consideration for how customers are going to interpret messaging, verbal or visual, and working to ensure that interpretation is beneficial.

For me personally, I work on strategy and user experience. So I'm always looking at initiatives through a semiotic lens that allows me to determine (most of the time) how decisions will affect the existing system of meaning around a brand. This is particularly helpful in positioning new brands in an existing market; many do not take the time to discover what the current landscape is with competitors and how to best position themselves. Or if I'm designing a website, semiotics speaks to how content is placed, what path will be most comfortable for users and also meet business objectives, and how to best design an experience that is memorable and beneficial.

2. If a teacher explains something to a student and that student doesn't remember any of it the following week, it is a failure. Making concepts memorable is a teacher's core mission. If signs are vehicles for concepts, what kind of signs make the most memorable vehicles in your experience?

Thomas: I'm not sure I agree that success/failure can be measured solely on memory. Maybe the student just doesn't care about the particular material. Maybe their dog just died and they were thinking about that while in class. Maybe the concept was difficult. There are a lot of factors that affect memory. I would say that if a teacher approaches a concept in a way that assumes students will not understand, then it's a failure. For example, if a teacher is preparing to explain the role of blood in Macbeth to a class of students, and he or she thinks "I'm just going to breeze through this because they're not going to be interested anyway," then it's a failure.

It is generally believed that communication that evokes an emotional response in the recipient is the most memorable. The problem is that evoking an emotional response is unpredictable and difficult to achieve. With a room full of students, how can you know what will get that emotional response from all of them?

I guess a lot comes down to personal relevancy. Curriculum is often designed without personal relevancy in mind, and often for good reason: a fifth grader can't reliably determine that learning US history will never be useful. At the same time, I think ideas need to be presented in a way that students can personally relate to the material. Sometimes this might need to be primed. For example, a teacher might ask students directly, "try to remember a time when you felt like Lady Macbeth, when you knew you did something wrong and wished you could just wash it away like you were washing your hands." This makes them think about their past experience and form a mental relationship with course material.

3. I think often teachers don't do a good enough job helping students see the purpose of learning what they are learning. What can teachers learn from marketers in terms of building emotion and meaning around traditionally mundane subject like calculus, grammar, the periodic table, etc.?

Thomas: I suppose I kind of spoke to this in the previous answer, but I would add that approaching a topic, even calculus, as mundane immediately sets up a teacher for failure. There are plenty of times in the marketing world where we look at a brief and think, "why would consumers possibly care about this?" It's a huge topic in social media marketing: why do consumers follow brands on Facebook, for example? Most of the stats say that it is heavily influenced special offers rather than any kind of emotional connection to the brand. At the same time, however, brands like Skittles have seen great success on Facebook by essentially disconnecting themselves from their product. Skittles promotes a mindset rather than candy. Their page is full of lighthearted posts about being carefree, having fun, and not taking yourself too seriously. That's something consumers can stand behind more so than a fruity candy.

In terms of students, maybe it's a question of framing calculus as a building block rather than an end point. The mindset of students is a calculus class is to learn what they need, pass the test, and move on. Maybe teachers should play into to that a bit by framing calculus as the base for a career in engineering, for example. I'll default to Leo McGinneva's quote: "People don't want a quarter inch drill bit. They want a quarter inch hole." So the product is only a means to an end. Students don't necessarily want to learn calculus. They want a career that necessitates a knowledge of calculus.

4. I read a book titled The 100 Greatest Advertisements 1852-1958 and two things jumped out at me. First, advertisements used to require a lot more reading. Some ads were a few hundred words. Second, each decade the amount of written text seemed to decrease. Now, we see ads all the time with just images and barely any written copy at all. What is the driving force behind this change?

Thomas: I'm not sure I have a sufficient answer for this. Some might make the argument that attention span has been declining for centuries, and rapidly declining since the internet. It might also be a result of marketers realizing that they can communicate more with an image than with words. Or maybe consumers had more leisure time in the early 20th century where they can flip through magazines and read the ads, especially since most of the early ads were aimed at housewives. I think the perception was that housewives had more free time on their hands, whether that's true of not.

The big difference between ads and education on this topic is the necessity for conversation. Traditional (and even digital, to a certain extent) ads are not reliant on dialogue. Education, on the other hand, calls for active conversation and collaboration. Even in a 700 person lecture hall, courses are usually designed to include some kind of peer interaction, whether through discussion sections, group projects, or something like that. Lots of things happen in those peer to peer interactions: friendships form, conflicts lead to working toward a common understanding, competition leads to greater personal investment...all of which, at the very least, contribute to a memorable experience.

5. As someone who helps create lasting impressions on people, what advice would you give to a teacher looking to do the same thing?

Thomas: Know your audience. Pay attention to how students behave, how they think. Focus more on how students can relate to course material rather than how to make them remember it. It's one thing to learn facts or parrot others' opinions, but it's much more valuable to think for yourself and form your own interpretation.

Thomas is a strategist and user experience designer at Ogilvy and as an independent consultant. With a background in cultural studies, comparative literature, and psychology, he brings a unique perspective on brand strategy by looking through the lens of semiotics and psychological theory. He currently lives and works in New York City. Find him on Twitter or visit his website to get in touch.


  1. A few questions that come to mind (somewhat in a pre-emptive disagreement with you) are, "Do we really want all knowledge to be deeply learned?"
    Eventually, each student will become an expert in a certain domain - s/he will become a doctor, a linguist, a software engineer. They will need domain-specific knowledge and only tangentially general knowledge from other fields.

    Secondly, not all lessons are meant to be "memorable" per se in detail. Some knowledge, most often factual, is the basis for building increasingly more conceptual knowledge that can be transferred and combined in the future.

    Thirdly, I don't think it is even possible, from a cognitive point of view, to turn all the bits of information we receive into core understandings that would last forever. There is a limit to how much our brain can process and store.


    1. Great questions, but I don't think we disagree.

      I don't think all knowledge needs to be learned deeply, nor is that possible. I think certain things need to be learned, and to me "learned" is a synonym for "remembered."

      So, most lessons don't need to be remembered in detail, but they do need to be remembered, otherwise why waste our time "teaching" things that are forgotten?

      I think often we equate the word knowledge with the word facts. This is a huge mistake progressive educators make in my opinion. Knowledge means facts, but it also means concepts, skills, everything else people know.

      I don't need a pilot to know what every acronym on their dashboard means, but I need that pilot to know how to successfully fly (and land!) the plane. This will require the pilot to remember a large number of facts, but they are a means to an end. What is really important is that he remembers what he learned about not crashing into the ground.

      As the pilot approaches the runway, it is really important to me that he remembers what he is doing. Some facts are more important than others in this situation, but the knowledge that helps him land the plane successfully is vital to my survival.

      I agree that all the bits of information are of differing value. Some are stepping stones to greater understanding, some are not. Bits of knowledge that are not important for learning don't need top be remembered, i.e., they don't need to be learned. We may need to be "introduced to" or "exposed to" them to progress up the ladder of higher-order thinking, but that isn't the point of this post.

      This post is about figuring out how to create lasting memories out of the things we decide students need to know.

  2. Indeed, procedural knowledge takes precedence over descriptive knowledge (re: the pilot example) in task performance, but it cannot be said that the latter is useless. Even for you, as an educator, background knowledge which is apparently inert (theories of learning, pedagogy etc) helps you identify the best ways of teaching although that is not necessarily directly observable in your act of teaching.

    Eventually, we don't disagree (as you said). I enjoyed the interview and your connections with the world of semiotics (especially that I had a course in Semiotics in college).

  3. 14-01-07

    George Haines,

    Very informative!

    I am proposing the use of video for teaching, I mean class lectures live, downloaded or prerecorded on dvd, exactly the same content as the teacher present in the classroom. Why mostly repeat the same thing year after year, recycle.

    DVD video mainly the later for developing countries which have limited internet, including selected internet content saved as video on DVD, such as wikipedia.

    The reason... there are not too many good teachers... the good ones could be at any school, anywhere, anytime, virtually/recorded.

    Also thinking about using songs to teach anything, why not?, will check into and others sites.

    Do you know who is doing it properly, have been searching for serveral weeks, found nothing really good eg Khan Academy, etc

    Tony Pared