12 April 2013

Modern learning experiences... repeatability...?

In the H817 MOOC, and everything else written about connectivist teaching, there is an evident strand of frustration among the proponents of connectivism that other teachers just don't "get it" and aren't buying into this new trend.

George Siemens claims that connectivism is a pedadogy for the internet age, as opposed to everything else which is pre-internet pedagogy crammed into an internet-shaped package.  Leaving aside the obvious criticism (that the human brain has not evolved since Tim Berners Lee first pinged his server), the real question is whether their successes (if they were indeed successes) are repeatable.

Since the start of the H817 course, I have been trying to remember the name of a guy I read about on Slashdot over a year ago... and funnily enough I never thought to check my bookmarks, and when I went looking for another bookmark today, voilà! Michael Wesch.

Wesch proposed a model of teaching based on social media and interactions.  He did it in his classroom and had great results.  He gave talks, he wrote articles, he encouraged other people to apply his techniques.  He was a teaching technology evangelist.

But eventually he stopped evangelising his techniques because the feedback he got from other teachers was that they weren't working.  There was something missing, some kind of magic that he hadn't included in his instructions.  And of course people with completely different techniques were getting results that were as good as his.

So he's stopped evangelising.

The important thing is the connection between the teacher and the student, and that's not down to the technology.  In fact, I would say that the technology has to follow as part of the teacher's passion and way of thinking.  What does that mean?  I haven't a bloody clue.  And neither does anybody, or that mystery -- "wonder" in Wesch's word -- of teacher/student rapport would be formulisable, and therefore teachable.  And if it was teachable, Wesch would have been able to teach people how to teach with technology.

When discussing language learning with other learners, I have always made a strong distinction between "what you do when you are learning" and "how you learn".

What I mean by this is that when someone does a series of grammar drills from a book, we cannot say that those drills are directly causing them to learn.  In fact, for every person who appears to learn successfully from such a book, you will find another half-dozen who fail to learn from exactly the same book.  Therefore we have to conclude that looking at the book's activities only gives us a very superficial view of the learning process.  We have to attempt to analyse the difference in approach between the successful and the unsuccessful learner.

But these approaches are very poorly understood and documented and very rarely taught.  The successful language learner's natural and intuitive learning process is not available to be repeated, so the method doesn't improve.

As soon as I started training to teach English, I quickly came to the conclusion that the same distinction affected language teaching techniques.  Everything in the how-to-teach books struck me as "what to do when you are teaching" rather than specifically "how to teach".  None of the activities really taught the language, and yet these books were written by very successful teachers.  They must have constructed sophisticated teaching styles and structures unconsciously, or their students would be failing -- it's just a shame they don't know what that is, or they could tell us.

The more and further I read into teaching, the more I find that this isn't specific to language teaching.  Don't get me wrong -- it's really not as bad in most fields as it is in language, but there is still a huge conceptual gap between "classroom activities"/"what I do" and "teaching"/"how I teach".

The connectivists are a prime example -- they give a list of fuzzy... I don't know, stuff; guidelines and that sort of thing, and a couple of fuzzy justifications for why it should work, but they simply do not give enough information to make it repeatable.  It's "what" not "how", "activity" not "teaching".

And right now the world is full of people trying to replicate the "MOOC", and as Siemens and Cormier are only too happy to tell us, they're doing it wrong.

Well, maybe that's because Siemens and Cormier haven't told us how to do it right.

And the most likely reason for that is simply that they do not know how to do it right.

No comments: