Friday, June 20, 2008

Watching Autodidacts

My office-mate is a few years older than I and has no computer at home. He is an intelligent and flexible enough guy (though he would deny that), but watching him painfully navigate new tasks on the computer is a stunning illustration of just how much we have learned in the past few years. He cannot scroll properly. Accurately selecting from the dropdown menu in MS Word befuddles him, and the discovery that Excel’s dropdown is different annoys him further. When the cursor turns into a different icon as he scrolls over something he thinks something has gone wrong. Attachments, saving to desktop, using a few key words on a search engine – these do not go smoothly.

I am certainly no computer wizard, though I look like one among social workers. I can guess my way through unfamiliar applications – the directions, vocabulary, and icons seem accessible to my thought – but I am a hybrid between the old ways of thinking and the new. Nor will I ever be anything but a hybrid. My children are newer hybrids, and over time they will likely organize their thoughts according to the networked and electronic world. They may be among the last who are even able to revert to the old ways at need, consulted in their elder years to translate. For even if their children are raised in traditional learning styles now, they will lose those skills from disuse. I can still diagram simpler sentences or work in base 8 with effort, but I can no longer operate a slide rule. Why would I need to, except as a parlor trick?

Not that people do tricks in parlors anymore, or even have parlors. You get my point.

I dimly recall that there are idiosyncratic cursive capitals, such as a Q that looks like a 2; I am quite certain that no one needs to learn cursive anymore. If you doubt that, by the way, try and read old family letters. People had handwriting styles that were difficult even then, but constant exposure to different penmen allowed us to read script. Try it now. Children’s handwriting, still reasonably close to the grammar-school standard, is decipherable. Adult handwriting, only barely so.

Adaptability, flexibility, and willingness give yourself over to the demands of a new technology are not the wave of the future for learning. They are the current wave – it is already upon us. We know that current curriculum design does not reflect the skills children will need, but we are only able to guess at what they will need. We fear to put enormous resources into techniques that turn out to be blind alleys.

Everyone has theories for this, methods folks are just sure will lead us to the promised land. I have seen this pattern in psychology over my career, as various techniques come into fashion as the new messiahs: reality therapy, recovered memories, NLP, EMDR, DBT. As in every field, a few of them will turn out to be right. The others will be neutral at best, damaging at worst. What will be predictable is that aromatherapists will discover that aromatherapy is what people need, dancers will think that children can learn so much from dance, programmers will proclaim vehemently that simple programming should be taught as early as kindergarten.

In that vein, I advocate studying the self-taught, to see what works for them. I was not an extreme autodidact, but a differently-designed educational system would have been an advantage for me. The traditional schoolroom almost destroyed my younger brother, who now has a Master of Fine Arts. Lewis and Tolkien were autodidacts, as were Einstein, Edison, Mendel, and Mandelbrot. The route to genius may even require intermittent, idiosyncratic instruction alternating with periods of leaving the student alone. (I don’t think children learn much leaving them entirely alone. I think it is the back-and-forth style, rigid structure alternating with no structure, which is productive.)


Ben Wyman said...

For the record, it's painful for me to watch you. And I have some programming friends for whom watching me navigate is painful. Operating a computer is one of those things where watching someone else do it when you can do it faster is simply uncomfortable for everyone involved. I don't have a good theory for why this is.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It's always painful to watch someone navigate something you know and they don't. And if you both don't know, one is always sure that the guesses they would make are more likely to be successful.

Is this more powerful for computer work or that is simply the current field where this plays out? I suspect the latter, but I have no data on it.

GraniteDad said...

It's the same for watching someone work when you are supposed to learn from watching them. It doesn't work- you invariably miss at least one step. It's not like making a boat, where the project is large. The keys are covered by someone's fingers as they type, and tracking someone's cursor is a pain.
Someone should fix that.