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Debunking educational myths

It’s a strange experience, but I think I have fallen in love with an academic paper. It is this one: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395#.UiIooj-_h5J “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education” The title refers to its debunking of the idea of Student-Led education, but it also totally blows away two other myths I completely object to in education, that of the digital native and that of learning styles. Student-led learning is also at the heart of the idea that teaching adults is so radically different from teaching children that it deserves a different name, one that goes under the putrid buzzword of “androgogy”. The paper opposes the idea that people really know how they need to learn, and that, if they are adults, we should hand over those choices to them. The arguments against the idea of digital natives and learning styles is well-documented, but this summarises them neatly. Any teacher educator everywhere should be made to read this before they stand up in front of a group of trainee teachers.

Prensky talked about the net generation as if they had a native language, and previous generations could at best only learn to use the tech as a second language. It really caught on for a while, but as more evidence has come in the premise has three big flaws 1) is that you can generalise like that, a lot of the younger generations struggle with technology, or don’t like it, and the older ones don’t 2) that you can generalise about the tech, someone may be a wiz at manipulating images, but totally blow at expressing themselves in twitter, and 3) that it matters. Because even if learners are using the tech in new ways it shouldn’t necessarily lead how you teach them, since this might not be conducive to effective teaching.

I’ve just finished a book bringing together a variety of case studies on student-centred, practical learning. The evidence is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a middle school in Chicago, a university in Nairobi, or a high school in Chile, activity-led, student-centred learning works better than subject-centred. The difference is that student-centred is not student-led. Often if you give students what they want, you would end up with them sitting there and being spoon-fed information, which isn’t really an effective way to learn. The problem with being customer-driven in education is that educators are handing over the direction of education to people who aren’t experts in how best to learn. We are. Or should be.

The problem with the digital natives idea is  that it’s one of those concepts that makes people feel like they’ve got a handle on changes that are happening, so become very popular. But the reality is both more complicated (people are far more varied than anything that can be put in a box) and simpler (deep down people don’t change that much anyway). The digital natives thing caught on in education because we could see our students working differently than we did (multitasking or rather switch tasking, meshing technologies), so we tried to emulate that in how we taught. The problem is that the assumption that “this is how kids learn now so we should support it” skipped the step of finding out if they actually learnt well doing that. Answer is they don’t. The other problem is that crazy paranoid people like Susan Greenfield made a bit of a career out of warning everyone that our brains are plastic and kids’ brains are being screwed up by being online. Until everyone spotted she’d seriously lost the plot, it got a lot of people worried about it. I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that we need to keep students motivated because the usual droney text-based abstract approach (nicknamed “mortarboading”) isn’t successful but then, the truth is, that it wasn’t for our generation either. The reality is, our brains evolved over 100s of thousands of years. 15 years of the internet is going to have no impact on how they work.

The danger is that as a researcher, there is a pressure on you to develop models that keep the pigeon-holing going, because they’re the only things that get attention. I’ve done it myself. Extended Activity Theory. Progressive presence. Fourth Places. All buzzwords that oversimplify things. The fact that they haven’t made me rich and famous isn’t through lack of my desire to sell out my principles, it’s just that no-one’s noticed them yet. You need something that can fit on one slide of PowerPoint if you want to make a name for yourself. I suppose you could do it, and cover it with loads of caveats, but as the models get passed on and popularised, the caveats get shed. Look at how people have bastardised the Myers-Briggs stuff over the years.

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