The Virtuous Middle Way

I really appreciated Karen’s recent post Trying to grok the lack of structure in peer learning.

I’m reading A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. I’m particularly interested in the part on peer learning and learning collectives.

This passage struck me:

[O]ne might be tempted to ask how we might harness the power of these peer-to-peer collectives to meet some learning objective. But that would be falling into the same old twentieth-century trap. Any effort to define or direct collectives would destroy the very thing that is unique and innovative about them.

This might be at the core of the tension I often feel when working in P2PU. It runs through everything from instructional design to system architecture.

I used to think it was my “old-school” teacher tendencies coming out, but I think it goes deeper than that. The very notion that perhaps peer learning shouldn’t be be structured, shouldn’t have learning objectives, and can’t be externally assessed simultaneously makes sense to me and is very uncomfortable.

There is clearly a panicked, aggressive rejection of the idea that a “teacher” should attempt to provide any measure of guidance to learners among some. And it is increasingly clearly politically correct – many of the cool kids hate structure, disdain objectives, and share equal belief in assessment and the flying spaghetti monster. And who doesn’t want to be cool?

History clearly demonstrates that people can learn under situations whose structure is completely self-determined (i.e., situations in which no meddling know-it-all instructor tries to predetermine learning outcomes). Pure, unguided (or more correctly, self-guided) discovery learning can work. No one denies this.

However, the purpose of the machinery of education is to improve the efficiency of the learning process. While some adventurous people want to find their way to the top of Everest alone, unguided and unsupported, others prefer the guidance of someone who know little tidbits like “people who walk over there die” or “an aluminum ladder is a great, lightweight way to cross a crevasse.” While some might prefer to work for years without reference to others to rediscover known scientific principles, others would like to accomplish this learning in a weekend and don’t mind leveraging others’ expertise to get it done.

You can’t – with intellectual honestly – claim to oppose structure and disdain learning objectives on the one hand and then aggregate dozens of resources and technologies for students that will help them learn more about a certain topic (including tutorials on how to use them effectively!). You’ve just predetermined what the students will learn about and given them guidance. MOOCs, for example, are clearly pointed at a topical learning outcomes and for all their supposed lack of structure people feel the need to write software which imposes a structure on the vast, undifferentiated mass of stuff. (But it’s open source, so you can step back and spend six months learning PHP/Perl/Python/Ruby and rewrite it so that it reflects your personal way of organizing things better!)

I appreciate that individuals are agents with the ability to make and be accountable for their own choices. I believe (religiously) that it is important for us to respect and protect that agency and help individuals grow in their capacity to exercise it. (Oops, I said I wanted to help… See what a control freak I am?) However, when someone says to me, “Hey, you know a lot more than I do about X, would you help me learn more about it?”, I don’t think it’s an authentic respect of agency to say, “I don’t want to hinder your exercise of free will. Consequently, I’m not willing to provide direct guidance to you. I’m only willing to softly suggest a list of websites – which you can augment with any other material you wish, and please don’t ask me if they’re appropriate or not – and to gently recommend that you get a Twitter account – or substitute any other technology in place of Twitter or use none at all. Don’t let me tell you what to do! God bless; let me know when you figure it out.”

The purpose of the machinery of education is to improve the efficiency of learning. The spirit of education should include respecting the agency of learners. It would be just as inappropriate to use coercive torture techniques to improve the efficiency of learning as it would be to eliminate the provision of specific, direct guidance in the name of agency. As with much else in life, our goal here should be to find and walk the virtuous middle way.

In my opinion, much in the current ed tech vogue is too far from center (i.e., trying desperately to avoid giving sufficient guidance). But please don’t let my opinion influence yours in the slightest. Or you can accept it wholeheartedly if you choose. I don’t want to exert any influence on your learning. Why did you even bother reading this? Or perhaps you would care to read it again?