Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Figuring It Out

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 11, 2007

Originally posted on Half an Hour, September 11, 2007.

Responding to Vicki A. Davis, who writes:
Self education doesn't work. We would never leave kids on their own to "figure out" math or literature but we know that in order to speed their learning, we should educate them on the principals that work. Likewise, leaving kids to "figure out" effective digital citizenship is equally preposterous.
This post views 'self education' through a polarizing lens, one that depicts the choices as being something like 'being taught' and 'leaving kids to figure out things for themselves'. The reality is nothing like that.

I don't think that anyone, anywhere, is writing about casting kids - or adults, for that matter - adrift in a sea of information with no anchor or support. A kid can be 'not taught' and yet still not be left to 'figure out' thinks on their own.

This becomes evident when we look at specific examples. Take 9-11 for instance. Yes, we could teach every kid that 9-11 was caused by terrorists in airplanes, not bombs. But there are very many similar conspiracy theories. Should we also teach kids that there are no aliens in Area 51?

At some point, they have to make the call for themselves. At some point - very quickly - they have to, as you say, 'figure it out' - because there will be no way we can teach them all the fact about what they may or may not encounter online.

What we want them to do, of course, is to be able to make those calls. The problem with the person who comes away thinking the WTC was bombed isn't that he wasn't taught the right things about 9-11, but that he doesn't have the tools to 'figure it out'.

Indeed, a person who reads a website and concludes that it's true, no matter what it says, is dangerously illiterate. He has been raised by people who believe that he should be 'taught' - and should not 'figure it out' for himself.

The fact is, when a student encounters a website like that, we want him or her to *get* support - we want him, or her to verify the facts on other websites, or to consult with peers or elders for verification.

We want the student to know that, even when he is not being 'taught', he has not been cast adrift - he is not alone, he is not without support. Indeed, the very essence of media literacy is understanding that there is a supportive net of information surrounding you, even when you're not in the classroom, and that (therefore) you should never rely solely on those who purport to teach you.

This is not merely a matter of semantics.

The alternative to 'being taught' that I am sketching here is misrepresented pretty much every day by people, usually teachers, who assume that students are simply incapable of learning on their own.

It is misrepresented in exactly this way, by suggesting that the only support and guidance a student can get is from a teacher.

This is not merely false, it is also dangerous, because it leads to a sense of dependency - it leads exactly to the sort of behaviour depicted in the original post.

The best thing a teacher can ever do for his or her student is to achieve that day when the student can say to the teacher, "I don't need you."

That's why, for better or worse, we release them after 12 years or so.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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