We are taught a subject, yes, but we are also taught the milieu and the intentions behind the learning environment. If you take adopting social media/connectivism/web-based learning in schools to the extreme, here are the lessons it might teach. They’re all tied together, so excuse the list (I’ve had enough concept mapping for now):
1. I am at the center of my learning.
This is good for me — I like it. I want my PLN and my instant information, my Google maps and my blog. But I already went to school, and know how to learn and what might be worth investigating. Is it good for my students, who want to spend all day playing video games? whose idea of the future is after class? Does such an approach encourage narcissism and narrowness? I’m starting to think so.
2. If I can’t find it, it isn’t there, because everything is on the web.
Everything is not on the web. Most of the sources I used for my thesis are not on the web, nor are they likely to be. And it’s not just a lack of sources. One of my top students, now at university, asked me recently, “what do we need older people for, when we can look up all the knowledge on Wikipedia?” I explained the difference between data or information, a lot of which you can find on the web, and wisdom, the meaning that is developed using information. He understood. Many of my younger students don’t.
3. My interests are of high importance in my ability to learn.
We keep assuming that engagement is crucial to learning. I haven’t seen evidence of this. The fact that everyone gets so excited about a study implying that a group of students had higher grades because they used Twitter indicates that there isn’t much research yet. So now we study attention. People pay more attention to things they’re interested in, so they must learn more. It’s easy to see the common sense of this. But there are many things I learned that I was not interested in, but I needed them later and was able to use them. And I have several students who engage in class, they are so into what’s happening, but forget the whole subject the moment they leave the room. (I know it’s anecdotal, but I deliberately tested for this by formulating an essay question around an exciting class discussion we had about which movies expressed the same values in Homeric poetry — no joy.)
4. My teachers are there to understand my needs and meet them.
The popularity of learning styles, the idea that we have different kinds of intelligences, led to a craze (I’ll date it 1991-2010) of catering to these preferences. I did it too, surveying my students to see what kind of learning they liked according to their own stated “needs”. The theory is being discredited now, right after I’d already come to the conclusion that I want my students working against type, so they could learn how to learn in other ways too.
5. My contributions are appreciated, regardless of their quality.
This is a hold-over from the whole self-esteem, I’m OK- You’re OK, thing. It’s not that we aren’t all OK. We are. But our work isn’t. It varies in quality. Sometimes it’s bad (this blog post ain’t so hot). Sometimes it’s good. There are gentle ways to suggest improvement, and not confuse the work with the person, but we don’t do this. We call someone a “C student”. We also make allowances. I’ve had a student tell me they couldn’t do an assignment because they’re a visual learner (see #4). Appreciate the person. Critically evaluate the work.
6. My ideas are always worth of respect.
They aren’t. Morally reprehensible ideas aren’t.
7. Learning should be pleasant.
Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) blames television in general, and Sesame Street in particular, for the idea that we should always be entertained and amused as we learn. TV, and now the internet, makes concentrated learning (especially of long texts, mathematical equations, or focused study) even more dull than they were before. Learning my multiplication tables was dull. But I still know them.
8. If I am bored, it is because my classes are boring.
There’s an old reply to a child saying, “this is boring”: you may be bored, but this is not boring. We say people should learn how to learn. I think it’s good if they also learn how to learn things that don’t interest them. You’re 8 years old (or 12, or 25, or 46) — how can you know what will interest you later? (see #1)
So do we try to reform the whole educational system in a way that encourages these extremes? Do we hold up the student in the New York Times article “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” as what we want? a young man who cannot get through a book and thinks that you can get the “whole story” of a novel in a 6-minute YouTube video?
We need to look at what we’re accepting and encouraging here. I do not agree with the quotation by Jeff Jarvis, presented by Will Richardson in our class last Tuesday: “Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.” He says the assumption is that we think “that the way we used to do it is the right way”. He says change brings “fear and retrenchment”. But looking at what we had before doesn’t need to imply traditionalism. It can be an effort to select what is worth saving.
What most people agree on, even the apologists, is that our print culture is moving toward web culture, and that we are moving from a world of lengthy printed texts to web-based scannable snippets. Even in my somewhat traditional field of History, we now have “new forms of historical writing, shorter forms with less scholarly apparatus“. The question is whether that is OK, and what kind of society results if we do. Do we want to save the ability to develop a sustained argument? To triumph over the difficulty of learning something hard? To pay the respect owed to teachers? to study ideas and ideals that transcend the interests of the day? Then we should keep those in mind as we move forward.