5 myths of educational innovators, part II: DIY U, “everyone should code”

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This is the second of two posts about busting cherished myths of educational innovators. The first post is found here.

4) Self-directed learning: This paper , published earlier in the summer by Paul Kirschner, a professor of Educational Psychology at the online Open University of the Netherlands, & Jeroen J.G. van Merrienboer at Maastricht University, in Educational Psychologist labels three popular ideas about education and innovation as “urban legends.” As their final point, the authors take on the often-repeated argument, associated with thinkers like Nicholas Negroponte, Sugata Mitra, Howard Rheingold, Tim O’Reilly, and many more, that knowledge is all “out there on the web,” and that the proper educational paradigm for the 21st century is for people to be taught the basics of “digital literacy,” and then be set free on their own to search and discover whatever it is they need to know.

The authors counter that many studies have shown that actually, if you give students an assignment without much prior knowledge of the topic, they will not be good at choosing the right search words or at discriminating wheat from chaff and finding valid sources of information, but will tend instead to skip around, get distracted by irrelevance or hucksters, and even find it hard to remember the original question.

Superficially, I’ve been quite guilty of promulgating this myth, even authoring a book titled DIY U. And superficially, it’s demonstrably false: the people who do best in open learning environments are generally those with the most preparation to learn.

But beyond the rhetoric, as I detail in my book, taking a deeper look at the traditions of progressive education reveals that it is networks and communities, peers and mentors, evolving processes, norms, and practices, not individuals blundering about in response to “assignments,” that truly enable self-directed learning. Also, it’s possible to teach people better web search and research practices, but most important of all–which gets to the question of self-direction–is the motivation to learn: can you teach people to “long for the great, broad sea?”

5) Coding for Everyone: A corollary to all the talk about digital literacy is an often repeated commonplace–again, I’ve been guilty of this one–that everyone needs to learn to code, or in the memorable phrase of cultural critic Douglas Rushkoff, “program or be programmed.” 

A thoughtful piece published in Slate last week argued that coding, in fact, is not for everyone. The author, Chase Felker, a software engineer, is not making an elitist argument; he acknowledges that he works alongside many fine self-taught programmers and that exposure to free learning resources is likely to increase the pool of talent. His concern is that a superficial, hobbyist-level interaction with one or two computer languages won’t necessarily give the layperson a deeper understanding of the complex unfolding forces at work in the technology sphere, but rather, simply fill schoolchildren’s brains with more disconnected, irrelevant bits of knowledge–not unlike the results of a long dive into a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Felker, quite correctly, I think, diagnoses the “everyone should learn to code” craze as just the latest example of a lazy habit of thought. As someone who writes about education, I often have to listen to people at cocktail parties who tell me that if “schools all taught this” or “schools all taught that,” that the country’s problems would magically be fixed.  It’s gardens. It’s anti-bullying. It’s makerspaces. It’s video games. It’s yoga. The problem is not that any of these are bad ideas. The problem is that there is limited time in the school day and often the basics aren’t being covered.

All five of these myths–self-directed learning, digital natives, 21st century literacies, disruptive innovation have a kernel of validity to them. They are expressions of the well-placed anxiety that the world is changing fast, that school is not serving children as well as it could, and that we could be doing better to empower our children.


POSTED BY Anya Kamenetz ON August 29, 2013

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