Confidence, adaptability, and self-directed learning

Feb 16, 2016 by Drew McConnell, Manager of Digital Learning, FIRST

Prior to working at FIRST, I spent some time working as a technology trainer and instructional designer. A company hired me to create a course on iOS programming (iPhone/iPad). After spending several months developing this course, Apple did what Apple does: it released something new. Typically a new release from Apple includes an upgraded phone or laptop with new hardware and software features, but this time it released a brand new programming language for iOS, called Swift.

Two days later, the same company asked if I would develop another course on iOS, this time using Swift.

Swift was foreign to me. In fact, the language was still in beta. It was changing daily and the only documentation about it was two brief e-books written by Apple (which were also changing daily). This was cutting edge content not even fully ready for production and they wanted me to not only learn it, but write professional-grade curriculum for it.

In order to teach something one must first understand it themselves, right? Trainers are supposed to be experts. They are expected to have extensive experience and a portfolio to prove it. How can a trainer create a course on a topic that no one has ever studied before? I had programming experience and a degree in Computer Science, but nobody prepared me for this. Especially not in school. Growing up, the narrative I was consistently given went like this:

  1. Go to college
  2. Pick a major
  3. Study hard in said major
  4. Get a job implementing knowledge from major

I see now that there are gaping holes in this narrative. How could these steps possibly speak to my current professional situation? I followed the steps, but I was still woefully unprepared for the task at hand.

The problem is, a similar narrative has been told about education since the Industrial Revolution. Its underlying theme is that learning equals knowledge and knowledge is finite. If students acquire enough knowledge and skills in school they will be prepared for post-grad life. While this may once have been true, it isn’t anymore.

Learning is not the acquisition of knowledge, and knowledge is not finite. Knowledge is a commodity found on the internet and it is always changing. Even now, only a couple years after developing a course on Swift, I am once again ill-prepared to teach it. Not because I have forgotten much of what I learned (which I have), but because both the language and the devices on which it runs have changed and adapted. Good or bad, this is how things work in the 21st century.

Society has changed and therefore education must change. If education is supposed to prepare students for societal life, it should mimic societal life. Society is constantly changing and adapting, therefore students must learn to change and adapt. They must gain confidence not just in the abilities they learn, but in their ability to learn. For me, I never had a chance to learn Swift during school because it didn’t exist, but confidence in my ability to learn, to research, to try things, fail, and learn from those failures was exactly what I needed to learn about and design a course around Swift.

And note the subtle, but important, difference between students learning and teachers teaching. Teachers cannot make students gain confidence, adaptability, or metacognition. They cannot make students cultivate grit or a growth-mindset. But they can create an environment that inspires learning; that motivates and challenges students; and helps them develop the confidence they need to be self-directed learners in all of their lifelong endeavors.

As Henry Ford once said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t--you’re right.” This is exactly what society needs and what schools should be cultivating. More than we need experts in engineering, programming, math, history, or writing; we need students, professionals, and citizens that have the confidence, adaptability, and creativity to think they can learn anything.

Drew McConnell is manager of digital learning for FIRST. Read Drew's bio

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