Urban Legends in Education

A recent article in Educational Psychologist sets out to debunk three urban legends in education: Digital Natives, Learning Styles and Self-Educators. This takes me back to the early days of this blog – which was started in no small part because I had a bad feeling about the idea of ‘Digital Natives’ as presented by Marc Prensky and similar ideas from others.

Indeed you can check out the Digital Natives category on this blog… a few posts there with links to a range of articles, including a few others published in academic journals that find a mismatch between rhetoric around Digital Natives and evidence.

The more recent paper, by adds some more weight to arguments against the naive conception of natives and immigrants – an idea that seems to be pretty much dead as far as researchers are concerned but which has an enduring afterlife.

The paper also considers learning styles, which again has a naive conception that can endure despite a lack of evidence. The third and final myth is that left to their own devices students will learn as well as – or better than – if taught:

A third legend has it that all that one needs to know and learn is “out there on the web” and that there is, thus, no need to teach and/or acquire such knowledge any more. This has led, for example, to the demotion of the teacher from someone whose job it was to combine her/his knowledge within a domain combined with her/his pedagogical content knowledge so as to teach those lacking this knowledge to someone whose role is standing on the sidelines and guiding and/or coaxing a breed of self-educators. These self-educators can self-regulate and self-direct their own learning, seeking, finding, and making use of all of the information sources that are freely available to them.

Again, we have a naive concept  - this time of students as effective self-educators. The evidence that exists to support this concept is generally based on anecdotes about individual learners or instances with specific groups of learners learning something quite specific. My own experience is that it is a minority of students that are truly effective and capable self-learners when they arrive at university. Over the years I’ve adapted my philosophy of teaching to being one where the goal (over four years of university) is to help students learn to become effective self-educators, but my experience is that most students need some amount of help, guidance and practice to get there. In first year most classes are ‘taught’, but over the years students become increasingly responsible for directing their own learning – setting objectives and goals and being in control of their own progress under gradually lighter supervision and mentoring.

In game technology (my subject) terms, I don’t so much want students to learn a graphics API, I want them to learn how to learn graphics APIs. I don’t want to teach them how to implement a particular effect, I want them to be able to use the basic core knowledge of a subject and put that to use to learn what they need, when they need it, for the unforeseeable future after they leave university.

Or as the authors put it:

second-order scaffolding, in which there is gradually decreasing support and guidance for self-directed learning skills. This second-order scaffolding helps learners learn to select learning tasks, find relevant supportive information, consult necessary procedural information, and identify useful part-task practice. The instruction shifts gradually from traditional teacher or system controlled learning environments, in which a teacher or another intelligent agent assesses a learner’s performance and selects suitable further learning tasks, to on-demand education, in which the learner self-assesses her or his performance and independently selects her or his own learning tasks.

Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Kirschner and van Merriënboer

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