Monday, February 4, 2013

The Independent Learner

I like learning on my own. My husband brought home a work computer for a day, and is having me explore on it. My version of exploring is to write. Okay, I also tried poking around, but I shooed him away for that. I didn't want him showing me how to do things until I played with it first. Otherwise, I don’t find out what I’m doing, or how the thing works, or if I like it, or if I can figure out how it works easily enough for me to consider it worth having. Some things aren’t intuitive enough for me (like Apple products) and it takes me forever to try to do anything—so why would I buy it? I like knowing where at least the basic settings are or having some sort of mental template to work off of—a set of “best guess” scenarios in my head that make it so that I know where to start. You have to start somewhere, but some starting points are better than others.

It takes different ways of thinking to navigate when exploring different systems. On one system, a person might be able to find their way around easily the first time; on another, they may find themselves messing things up without knowing what they are doing—and unable to put things back to how they started. That is, in my opinion, exploration gone wrong. Exploration is about learning a new system, thinking in a new framework, understanding a new world. If you make things even more boggling for yourself, you’re worse off than you started.

Making mistakes is a part of the process of learning, and no one should mistake me and think that by “boggling yourself” I mean making mistakes. Rather, I mean when you perform what you think is a discrete action, and a result follows, and you perform the action again and a different and unrelated result occurs. This is often because what you think of as a discrete action is in fact an amalgamation of several; or else because an aspect of the discrete action that you considered to be unimportant and ambiguous to the action’s meaning (such as a twitch of the leg is to a handshake, where for it to occur or not makes no difference) is in fact a differentiating factor, and so you performed two separate actions each time without realizing it. If we do not have an inkling of our discrete action as being anything other than that, then we shall be stuck, unable to make reproducible results out of exploratory events.

That is why I say, perhaps to some people’s dismay, that exploration in this sense (that is, self-taught learning) will require a preexisting way of thinking per every system that the learner is exploring. It is an admirable trait of many modern technological devices that they are easily picked up without instruction by people whose only relevant preexisting thought structures come from modern society. That means that to someone immersed in and used to the everyday functioning of today will be able to learn on their own many computational devices. I applaud technological ingenuity for being able to access these basic thinking frameworks in the way they set up their systems.

If you are wondering what I refer to, let me point to a real example. Some of my readers might have heard of the instance where a humanitarian organization dropped off a box of packaged tablets (I believe they were solar powered) in rural, third-world villages that had little outside contact, including no computerized or electric technology and no English speakers. Within 6 months, the children in the towns had gone from figuring out what the tablets were and how to turn them on to hacking them so as to adjust locked settings and beginning to learn English and other subjects on the tablets—all on their own.

There are many similar examples, homeschooling being another, but there are also many examples we could draw where a new system is not accessible or learnable by simply exploring it on one’s own. However, all systems are accessible with the right instruction, and this is where homeschooling is an excellent example, as most homeschooled children are a pretty good mix of self- and parent-taught. Imagine if this concept were incorporated into all models of education: children receive the basic necessary instruction from a teacher (i.e. the mental framework necessary to grasp the structure of the new system being learned) and then are given free rein to apply it and learn further in that area, or in a different, similarly-structured area, on their own.

A lot of homeschooled children, and all children to some degree, also benefit from the third successful method of teaching new material: peer instruction. Usually this refers to a peer who is older or more experienced in the new area, although it can also refer to equally-matched peers. (I refrain from saluting the “group project” method of teaching, where students of an equal level are put together to learn in tandem. Generally, a student of any subject will learn best when able to research on their own and then present their findings to the scrutiny of the group. I do not deny the use and even necessity of working with others, but I think it behooves teachers to let learners develop their own ideas without relying on others to do the work, and then to dialog and discuss their and others’ ideas analytically. Those skills, both in learning and in socializing, are far more valuable than having a group leader manage people and try to get everyone to get their homework done—which often devolve into threatening or passive-aggressive interactions: so much for learning social skills.)

Peer instruction, especially between mismatched age groups (e.g. the children in a family), is good for children because they: learn by instruction, learn how to instruct, and learn by instructing someone else. All of these are important skills and situations for a learner to be familiar with. Getting children to play together is enough; letting them play together in some educational way is also encouraged. Some of the best ways are through educational games or videogames, or learning how to use the computer for a specific purpose, such as making greeting cards. Heck, even handing your child your iPhone may not end up being too bad of an idea, as long as the proper safety measures are installed. Just so long as parents and teachers don’t forget the good it does a child to simply play with sticks and blocks and sunshine. Children need to be creative; they need the challenge of making their world up and exploring its rules.

I should mention that I am in no way trying to subtly sneer upon the education system of our day. While I believe it needs a lot of overhaul to be better, so do many things in life, and I commend teachers for doing so well with what they are given. Teachers today are in desperate need of community support. Education is half up to parents, but sadly many parents do not take responsibility for it. Many of the problems in the classroom arise because students do not think the same as each other and therefore are not all at the same level nor have the same needs at every moment. How can a teacher give intellectual challenges to the learner who has got the point already while helping their neighbor who is still struggling to understand? Ultimately, compromises are necessary. And if it is not the most efficient system, it gets the job done, which is more than can be said for many other social systems.

I have many ideas as to how the concepts in this essay can be applied to the classroom setting, however. For instance, I have had teachers in the school system who, instead of assigning the typical “group project,” had us get in discussion groups to argue our ideas. Provocative, difficult questions from the teacher (and not easily answered ones) kept the room from ever going silent. In one class, we were assigned a side to the discussion for which to formulate a defense and then asked to out-argue our opponent. (Nothing helps a person think through an argument like being forced to argue for the side you disagree with.) We presented our arguments against each other to the class, and the class voted on whose argument won. While each student would be graded upon effort and not on winning, the effort put in was significantly greater because every student hoped to win. Many students also collaborated outside of class in order to hone their arguments against each other.

I have also seen many teachers who can successfully get their class working silently on their own, not only letting self-instructed learning reign but also giving themselves the ability to instruct students where necessary and only according to their specific needs. Some teachers obtain a class tutor to help with this; I was one such tutor through a high school tutoring program, working as a senior with freshmen, and enjoyed it immensely. So let it not be said that these methods can be applied by the shrewd teacher. I will leave it to teachers to come up with even more creative ideas to get control and teach at the same time—no mean feat when dealing with thirty children.

I think my husband wants his computer back. Oh well, enough exploring.