Figuring It Out

Responding to Vicki A. Davis, who writes:
Self education doesn't work. We would never leave kids on their own to "figure out" math or literature but we know that in order to speed their learning, we should educate them on the principals that work. Likewise, leaving kids to "figure out" effective digital citizenship is equally preposterous.
This post views 'self education' through a polarizing lens, one that depicts the choices as being something like 'being taught' and 'leaving kids to figure out things for themselves'. The reality is nothing like that.

I don't think that anyone, anywhere, is writing about casting kids - or adults, for that matter - adrift in a sea of information with no anchor or support. A kid can be 'not taught' and yet still not be left to 'figure out' thinks on their own.

This becomes evident when we look at specific examples. Take 9-11 for instance. Yes, we could teach every kid that 9-11 was caused by terrorists in airplanes, not bombs. But there are very many similar conspiracy theories. Should we also teach kids that there are no aliens in Area 51?

At some point, they have to make the call for themselves. At some point - very quickly - they have to, as you say, 'figure it out' - because there will be no way we can teach them all the fact about what they may or may not encounter online.

What we want them to do, of course, is to be able to make those calls. The problem with the person who comes away thinking the WTC was bombed isn't that he wasn't taught the right things about 9-11, but that he doesn't have the tools to 'figure it out'.

Indeed, a person who reads a website and concludes that it's true, no matter what it says, is dangerously illiterate. He has been raised by people who believe that he should be 'taught' - and should not 'figure it out' for himself.

The fact is, when a student encounters a website like that, we want him or her to *get* support - we want him, or her to verify the facts on other websites, or to consult with peers or elders for verification.

We want the student to know that, even when he is not being 'taught', he has not been cast adrift - he is not alone, he is not without support. Indeed, the very essence of media literacy is understanding that there is a supportive net of information surrounding you, even when you're not in the classroom, and that (therefore) you should never rely solely on those who purport to teach you.

This is not merely a matter of semantics.

The alternative to 'being taught' that I am sketching here is misrepresented pretty much every day by people, usually teachers, who assume that students are simply incapable of learning on their own.

It is misrepresented in exactly this way, by suggesting that the only support and guidance a student can get is from a teacher.

This is not merely false, it is also dangerous, because it leads to a sense of dependency - it leads exactly to the sort of behaviour depicted in the original post.

The best thing a teacher can ever do for his or her student is to achieve that day when the student can say to the teacher, "I don't need you."

That's why, for better or worse, we release them after 12 years or so.


  1. There is a big difference between figuring it out and being educated. If you have been reading my work, you'll know that I advocate teaching students HOW TO LEARN. However, to ignore digital literacy as being done in schools everywhere is wrong.

    Students are coming to me from both mine and other schools hopelessly inept at distinguishing sources, particularly on the Internet. They think that because the site looks official that it is a website.

    What we are pointing at are curricular holes here. We are pragmatists making observations and pointing out things that need to happen.

    Any person who is effective in their jobs will self evaluate what they are teaching and doing.

    Accordingly, I'm working with our curriculum director to create a digital citizenship curriculum from first grade up for things appropriate to each grade level.

    This is important and to ignore this issue because we think kids should "get it" on their own is irresponsible.

    While we usually agree, we're going to have to disagree on the importance of teaching kids digital citizenship skills including literacy. It is an essential item for anyone's education today.

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  3. This week I was reminded of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child this week [note that the US has not ratified the convention, but most countries, including Canada, have]. Articles 12 and 13 should be posted in every classroom. The latter reads:

    "The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice."

    The choice is up to the child, with more independence on growing up, but still with rights as a minor.

    This post also reminded me of the best article on curriculum I have ever read, by Brian Alger:

    "One of the effects of curriculum design of any kind is confinement. And the confinement of human experience is an act of violence. A common example of this confinement via curriculum leading to violence is bullying. Another effect of curriculum is exclusion as seen in the large numbers of students that leave the school system. Unfortunately, educational leader and politicians fail to take the responsibility to explore the possibility that they themselves may in fact be the agents of confinement, violence and exclusion."

  4. "The teacher's job is to make him or herself progressively unnecessary." (I don't remember the source).


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