Studies have demonstrated that texts written in difficult to read fonts are easier to learn from than when they are written in easy to read fonts. When more effort is required to distinguish visually ambiguous symbols then apparently more effort gets exerted on comprehension too. This phenomenon is one of various others showing that challenge (as long as it is not excessive) acts as a spur to learning.
Deliberately increasing the effort involved in interactions contradicts the underlying approach typically applied in user-experience/user-interaction design of making interactions as effortless and automatic, as convenient, as possible.
The contradiction of challenge and convenience is central to the effectiveness of educational systems. Levels of challenge appropriate to optimal learning may be too inconvenient to induce engagement while levels of convenience ensuring engagement may not provide sufficient challenge for effective learning. The resultant trade-off between the factors of challenge and convenience is not necessarily easily optimised
The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of mass participation in education and the extension of that participation into more and more of learner’s lives (which has continued into the twenty-first century). Achieving this huge expansion of learning has been a staggering triumph in terms of increased learner engagement but it is not clear how the balance of challenge and convenience has been affected by this, hence what may have been the effect on learners’ learning. Are learners learning what they need to learn to act effectively in employment (for example)?
A CPID report from 2015, discussing the employability skills of new graduates, commented that such graduates had skills deficiencies in four key areas:
Working life’ skills: this includes turning up on time and looking presentable, but also takes in what is expected of an employee. As one HR professional puts it: “It’s understanding what being a working professional means.”
Self-awareness and confidence: lack of confidence is often the result of a young person’s life experience so far, and its impact is often underestimated by more experienced staff. One young person told the interviewer: “In my first couple of weeks I’d be scared about picking up the phone. But now it doesn’t faze me; I just pick up the phone and approach people around me.”
Communication: learning how to communicate with colleagues, whether it’s face-to-face or via email, is vitally important, but so many are unaware of the impact of what they say. One young employee said: “The amount of times I would speak to someone and say something completely inappropriate and not have an absolute clue about what I did wrong at the time.”
Commercial skills: this involves not being more business focused, but also an ability to see things from the client’s point of view.
Beyond the issue of employability, Critiques have been made concerning how successfully effectively autonomous adult individuals are developing, suggesting that traditional adult identity is becoming increasingly deferred.
Being young today is no longer a transitory stage, but rather a choice of life, well established and brutally promoted by the media system. While the classic paradigms of adulthood and maturation could interpret such infantile behaviour as a symptom of deviance, such behaviour has become a model to follow, an ideal of fun and being carefree, present in a wide variety of contexts of society. The contemporary adult follows a sort of thoughtful immaturity, a conscious escape from the responsibilities of an anachronistic model of life. If an ideal of maturity remains, it does not find behavioural compensations in a society where childish attitudes and adolescent life models are constantly promoted by the media and tolerated by institutions.
The kidult does not design his existence along a line that goes from the past to the future; rather, he takes his decisions day-to-day, on the base of needs and desires related to the situation and the context. He lives an artificial youthfulness as infinite potentiality, he lives in a universe in which any valence to diversity between young and adult has been subtracted and in which, on the contrary, the lack of distinction between the two became a characterising element.
In kidults, in particular, the sense of dependency prevails over the search for independence. It becomes an inescapable condition which jeopardises the natural path toward autonomy and individual and social self-determination.
Parts of this critique of ‘kidulthood’ are reminiscent of the ideas Ian Bogost expressed in ‘Play Anything’ relating to irony as an inauthentic form of play, which was touched on in an earlier post (which discussed how play could be partly understood as a form of respect for the intrinsic properties of objects in and of themselves, demonstrated through an enthusiasm for engaging with those objects as they are rather than as how we might like them to be).
A similar critical view expressed by Simon Pegg, argued that deferred maturity acted as a kind of escapism from unwelcome aspects of reality.
Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.
Arguments have been made (here by the libertarian FEE) that increasing amounts of compulsory formal education has acted to erode the challenge faced during childhood and adolescence, by introducing an increasingly extended period of economic dependency and integration into a top-down system of control that is inherent in the increasing replacement of employment with education for young people.
An explicitly technology related dimension has also been incorporated into this discussion, questioning how the ubiquity and sophistication of technology has resulted in a situation where many people feel that they could not hope to understand how much of the world functions, to the extent that they come to believe that they can only stand in relation to it much as a young child stands in relation to an adult world that stretches inestimably far beyond the limits of their comprehension- experiencing a type of learned helplessness.
“Most people think about understanding as a binary condition,” Arbesman told me in an interview. “Either you understand things completely or not at all.” That viewpoint is dangerous when it’s applied to technology today, because there’s simply no way to understand everything. (Or, as Arbesman puts it in his book: “The vast majority of computer programs will never be thoroughly comprehended by any human being.”) Instead, he argues, people should be acting as technological naturalists, approaching complex digital systems the way a biologist would examine living systems. Doing so will require people to rethink what it means to understand technology, and at what scale:
Abstraction in computing—and the elegance of interfaces like the ones that make MacBooks and iPhones so user friendly, for instance—has made machines delightful and easy to use, but has also created a huge gap in comprehension that didn’t exist in the early days of personal computing. (In the beginning, if you wanted to mess around with a computer, you had to learn to speak its language; not the other way around.)
However, various examples (some really quite inspiring) exist that show young people’s willingness and capacity for embracing challenges that bridge educational contexts and the wider world. These may be a minority of learners, but perhaps a minority that is starting to grow.