The Knowledge Hunters

 Responding to (I have attempted to post this there as well, but the comment system rejects it, first because the comment is too long, then because the URL is too long.)

As the theorist behind this Downesian fanatical training agenda I feel I ought to make a few points.

First, it's always pretty easy to show that something we say has already been more or less said before. Consequently I am not particularly concerned about whether what I say is novel or merely a rehash of something already said. What matters is whether it is right.

Personally, I doubt that 1970s progressives were saying the same thing I'm saying, mostly because the mathematics, science and terminology did not exist. And I *do* address the criticisms they faced. But it doesn't matter. If they were prescient, great! It's not a competition.

Second, I have addressed the question of the skills and attitudes needed to succeed in a connectivist environment on numerous occasions. If people presenting the ideas and theory did not cover this, they can hardly be blamed; a one-hour presentation doesn't allow coverage of everything.

But last summer I addressed an entire course to 'critical literacies'. I've looked at the subject in numerous presentations. I wrong a very popular article, 'Things You Really Need To Learn', which describes what ought to form the foundation for a 21st century education.

I know, oh I know, that many students and even adults are not in a position to manage their own learning. They do not have the skills and discipline. This is unfortunate, because it leaves them dependent and unable to adapt.

But the argument that we are currently doing it wrong should not stand successfully against the argument that we should be doing it correctly.

I have long argued - and many others before me! - that children should be encouraged to learn creative and critical thinking, logic, analysis and reasoning, scientific method, and those other tools an autodidact will have in plentiful supply. That they do not have these tools today is no reason to continue to teach them specific dates and places, or to have them memorize formulae by rote.

Third, at the core of connectivism is the idea that learning is not a matter of transferring knowledge from a teacher to a learner, but is rather the product of the learner focusing and repeating creative acts, of practising something that is important and reflecting on this practice. Not that I'm the first to say this either! But it continues to astonish me how this basic point eludes so many thinkers.

Take, for example, the proposal that:

"I discourage my own language students from taking too many notes. I want them to be there with me in the moment, hopefully engaging me or the material I present directly, thinking through and subsequently coming to new personal understandings for themselves."

This sounds like a desire to engage students in creativity and participation, but is actually a countervailing edict. Unless there is an active discussion taking place (in which case we might still see some note-taking, but demonstrably less) what is being lost is rather their rapt attention as someone feeds them 'the facts'. That's not engagement, activity, or anything of the sort. It's receptivity.

Oh, I've attended many of those conference presentations, and you'll hear me tap-a-tap-a-tapping at the back of the room. I'm taking notes - hardly a passive activity, but an active engagement with the material, a working through of what is being presented into my own wording and my own vocabulary, in real-time. It's a defense mechanism against the pedagogy of presentation, a way to keep myself from falling asleep while waiting for the speaker to catch up with her idea.

When we discourage note-taking, we are making it about *ourselves* as teachers, which is exactly the opposite of what it should be.

Fourth, even for a polymath such as myself, the road of the autodidact is lonely and frustrating. I know this because of, for example, the hours I have spent discovering that the number of variables in the template must match exactly the number of variables passed to the function filling the template, an error that will be logged with the unhelpful (and incorrect) notification, "syntax error."

One of the differences between the 'discovery learning' of the 1970s and the network learning of today is that today you're supposed to ask people when you run into something like that. You post your code to your blog or a discussion board, or email it to someone you know, and ask, "why won't this work?" And so forth, with all the other frustrations you encounter on the way to mastery of your domain.

In a very real sense, the attitudes and skills lacking in those students who do not succeed in network learning are precisely those surrounding how to frame a question, how to pose it to a community, and how to interact with them in such a way that they'll respond to you. These are no easy feats for a generation that thinks asking for help is cheating!

What distinguishes network learning from the discovery learning of the 70s is that it's not about the discovery at all. There's no extra reward, no supposition of improved recall, no morally superior consequence, to having discovered something yourself as opposed to have asked someone how to do it. It's about acquiring, through practice, a certain set of skills: of experimentation, of enquiry, of testing and observing, of communicating. The principle being 'discovered' is the least of it! These are a dime a dozen; human knowledge is filled with them, far more (especially in the 21st century) than anyone could remember. Getting at these principles, teasing them out, working them - these are far more important skills, and they will not be learned, quite frankly, by paying attention in class.
Finally, fifth, I speak and write to educators, and the vast majority of them are older people, adults in their 50s, as I am, or those to whom a synonym for 'millennium generation' is 'youngsters'.

I don't talk to these people about how to teach, even though the majority of them are educators. My primary concern isn't the young at all. Rather, I am most interested in these older people, these teachers, themselves. I talk to them about "How to manage your own thinking and learning." Because, I figure, if they can understand and acquire these habits themselves, they will be more able to *demonstrate* (rather than hopelessly try to *tell*) their student show to learn.

Of course, you can hardly blame those people who in fact *are* younger from restraining themselves from taking this approach. Either they suppose that older adults are, in fact, able to learn things for themselves, or if not, hardly feel in a place to correct them. Nor should they.

Finally, I should be clear, none of what I recommend is fact or easy. True, no end of salespeople will try to tell you that this or that educational theory or reform will solve the problems in the workforce (or with our kids, or whatever) in just a few years. But you don't lose weight quickly, you don't build muscles quickly, and correspondingly, you don't train your mind quickly. These things take time, for some very good biological reasons, and on understanding that we can make remarkable, if slow, progress.

And in all of this - and here we are probably very much in agreement - there is very much a contradiction between what I would encourage in an educational system and what those who envision a fleet of learning management systems, core vocabularies and competencies, and standardized assessment mechanisms would envision.

At its heart, what I have to write about is a theory of education based on personal freedom, empowerment and creativity - and I positively *know* that 70s progressives talked about this, and I am wholeheartedly in agreement with them, and arguably the product of such an education.

That's why I am dismayed when people say that students today just don't have the chops to manage their own learning. It's a denial of the sort of education, of the sort of life, that is worth living. It is to suggest, contra all the evidence to the contrary, that there's no point teaching them to live their own lives, because they'll never learn.

And if that's not new - that's fine. It's still worth saying.


  1. Do you have any advice for an over 50 something, who adapted your way of demonstrating, but suffers from jealousy of her colleagues now?

  2. Heh, I'm not sure, maybe "be generous and share?"

  3. "First, it's always pretty easy to show that something we say has already been more or less said before. Consequently I am not particularly concerned about whether what I say is novel or merely a rehash of something already said. What matters is whether it is right.

    Personally, I doubt that 1970s progressives were saying the same thing I'm saying, mostly because the mathematics, science and terminology did not exist. And I *do* address the criticisms they faced. But it doesn't matter. If they were prescient, great! It's not a competition."

    I completely agree with the above thoughts of yours, because it is the way knowledge flourish through generations. Great DOWNES!!! thank you for sharing.

  4. I liked the talk very much. It reminded me so much about talks by John Seely Brown but took the time to provide another level of detail. Was wondering if you have any suggestions about breaking down the walls in the workplace where the corporate ethic places greater emphasis on individual expertise.

    Take care Stephen.


  5. Wanted to comment about the part of the video which mentioned that you suggested to students take less notes. I've noticed that large numbers of students, particularly Asian students, say little in class or in media yet do well on tests.

    There was a recent article in MacLeans about concerns that there were too many Asian students at elite Canadian Universities which prompted other students to apply elsewhere. The article continued that Asian students studied long hours and had little social life.

    Have you noticed this hesitance to engage socially and do you have any suggestions about changing the dynamic and getting these students involved. Thanks,


  6. Hi Stephen

    I've read back over my review and cannot find a reference to any "Downseian fanatical training agenda".

    What I did say was :

    "an attempt was made at ConVerge 2010 to promote and massage this Downesian connective knowledge theory into the government's fanatical training agenda."

    I am not accusing you of fanaticism. The point I was making is that an educational theory espoused by you is being tailored to fit the questionable and narrow educational agendas of others ie. the entrepreneurs of a particular eductional ideology endorsed by Govt/Industry. No great surprise. A reduced, simplistic version of what you are talking about sits very nicely with the e-learning sales pitch of most institutions here in Australia : learning what you like, when you like, wherever and however you like --- making sure of course you do it on their platform, using their software, working within the parameters they allow, conforming to the rigid, received competency standards they articulate ... and most importanty, paying big bucks for the privilege!

    Find the rest of my reply here ...

    Same problem as you with character allowance ;-)


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