All in all, you’re just a- nother node in the network (guitar solo)

What learners today seem to find so difficult is to combine different pieces of information that they are given with some kind of integrating purpose. Give typical contemporary learners an ensemble of information and a task that does not explicitly specify how it should be achieved (here, not explicitly defined task means tasks that exceeds the scope of an acyclic series of single-step processes for which no crucial information must be remembered or taken note of without having been instructed to take note of it) and the typical learner response tends to be ‘I see what the task says, but what do I do?’. What the learner is supposed to do is interpret the task. This is precisely what they struggle with.

What superficially seems to be the case is that learners lack a combinatorial fluency in some way that might plausibly be associated with inadequacy of attention span, as well as exhibiting a similar lack of efficacious fluency associated with depleted autonomy.

This diagnosis is questionable however when the capacity of contemporary learners to integrate information sources in informal learning is considered. The world now is tremendously complex and rich (and requiring of interpretation), to the point that simply navigating it at all requires a great deal of integration of information streams. Young people are highly active informal information stream integrators. Equally, young people now typically take great interest in their own autonomy and preferences and tend to be skeptical of authorities generally. 

These qualities of young people often fail to be at all evident when considering them as individuals, where the diagnosis of ‘poor attention span and weak autonomy’ is apparently the last word on the matter. Learners’ individual limitations should not be surprising however when it is understood that acting individually and unilaterally is an extremely alien mode of operation for today’s young person. This generation’s learners’ worldview is that of the network node, not of the self-sufficient individual.

Life as a network node is based around asynchronous collaboration with other network nodes. Asynchronous collaboration involves multiple agents working remotely to informally decide amongst themselves what actions to undertake, and doing so in a fashion that adapts to emergent network properties. This way of life represents a rational recognition of the efficiency gains of division of labour as well as the effectiveness gains that decentralised decision making can provide. These forms of behaviour are though almost the exact opposite of the forms appropriate for adapting to a setup in which individual agents are physically situated together but required to act individually and in isolation from each other, in response to an agenda that they had no significant part in selecting or influencing- the setup upon which twentieth century education is modelled. 

Trying to educate today’s learners in accordance with twentieth century educational systems and procedures and then being surprised at the ineffectiveness of the learners’ performance is to do something comparable with taking completely offline a computer that is running almost exclusively cloud based applications and then being surprised at how limited its functionality has become. Additionally, imagine that the computer is capable of allocating resources to the end of attempting to reconnect itself to its cloud networks- and indeed does everything it can to do just that (to the detriment of its capacity to do very much of anything else that it could conceivably do without cloud support).    

Educational institutions of today have two main options in responding to the problem of having a teaching model that does not fit its learners. The first response is to alter the model to better fit the learners by transforming the model into something essentially network based. The second response is to find ways to obscure the negative effects of the model-learner mismatch by modifying the model used so as to as far as is practically possible eliminate situations involving learners being required to genuinely interpret tasks (this being where the most noticeable symptoms of the model-learner mismatch are evident).

For the most part, educational institutions seem to have preferred the second option. Given the choice of implementing a complete paradigm change versus retaining the current paradigm but eliminating interpretation, the latter option is clearly the easier one to take. In a competitive educational environment, it is very risky for individual educational institutions to unilaterally and openly acknowledge the existence of major problems within themselves lest this simply mark them out as failing institutions. Bitterly ironically, the educational provision system tend to very much have a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset; a school acknowledging its mistakes is not seen an opportunity for that school’s growth but as evidence of that school not being viable and hence of the need to replace its management and/or staff, or even to close it down.  

Competitiveness incentivises schools to disguise rather than address structural problems in the short-term interests of schools. The effect of such occlusion is to pass on the schools’ structural problems to the learners that graduate from problem affected schools. Learners whose education evaded the difficulties of equipping them to interpret complex tasks proceed after graduation to face the challenge of finding employment opportunities that are highly likely to be dependent on applicants’ abilities to interpret complex tasks (this problem is elaborated on in this article in Inc).

What seems to be taking a long time for educational policy makers to recognise is that what is in the short-term interests of schools is basically unsustainable; the prevalence of network-orientation in learners that drives the educational model/learner mismatch is not a short-term phenomenon and it is only going to intensify in the future. Helping schools to protect their short-term interests at the cost of the long-term interests of their graduates cannot continue arbitrarily without incurring seriously damaging economic consequences in terms of unemployment, under-employment and the prevalence of low-skill/low-pay employment (in other words, general job insecurity). The prospect of increasing workplace automation rising to substantial levels in the near future threatens to greatly exacerbate this damage.


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