Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"It's Scary."

I just went to a workshop where the discussion turned to the ever-increasing presence of technology in how we learn.  Conversation moved quickly from Facebook to Twitter to SCVNGR to foursquare, then extrapolated into the future.  Finally feeling overwhelmed, one of the participants said, “It’s scary.”  Curious, I asked why she was afraid (not that she shouldn’t be).  Her response had to do with how much there was to learn.  There was a sense of apprehension that she might not be able to do it.   

The fact is that we live in a rapidly changing world, which requires us to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis.  Having been nudged, dragged, prompted and coached on my own path from Luddite to a tech competent and tech curious Baby Boomer, I’ve spent some time thinking about what it is that scares us and inhibits us about mastering the various new technologies we encounter. 

I have a hunch that we drag old school wounds and scars along with us in ways that unnecessarily complicate our current learning.  Or worse, block us from even trying to learn.  Our attitude toward learning is as outdated as the classrooms we were taught in and the information we learned.  Kirsten Olson discusses this problem in her book, Wounded by School – Recapturing the Joy In learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture.  Even in something as mundane as learning how to program a DVD, we get anxious, out of sorts, and frustrated.  Then ask our kids to show us how to do it.  We adults assume we’ve got to learn it right away, worry about looking bad while we do it, and agonize as if we were going to fail some imaginary test on DVD recording.  We act as if we’re going to get graded, sorted, judged and valued by how we learn.  As if a failure in DVD manipulation might be recorded on our permanent transcript. 

My twenty-one-year-old son and I recently got new cell phones together. They are exactly the same model.  I went immediately to the instruction manual to figure out how to operate my phone.  My son flipped his phone open and started playing around with it.  That’s been his way of learning about such things ever since he was a little boy messing around with computers and playing computer games.  Essentially it’s a push all the buttons and see what happens style of learning.  Playing with the device.  Play being a key word.  My son and I continue to compare notes on how to operate our new phones.  There remains something to be said for consulting the directions.  There is plenty to be said for exploring confidently, not being afraid to make mistakes, adopting a “game mentality” of incremental mastery that is dependent on no one’s timetable but one’s own.  And plenty to be said for collaborating, so that we can learn from each other. 

My son and I will never have a cell phone final exam.  We’ll never sit in a room with a proctor looming to make sure our work is our own.  But too often, I think, we older learners handle the future by going backwards.  We consign ourselves to the anxiety of some exam room from the past whenever we’re confronted with something new to learn, or at least something we feel we have to learn.  An “assignment”, to dredge up another old school term.  We create a present fiction based on past wounds in order to cope with the future.

For older learners our fear of failure is sometimes so acute, we don’t allow ourselves to fail during any step of the process.  At least when it comes to technology, younger learners seem to have an ease about failing early and often on their path to mastery.  It would probably serve us older folks well to remember the following:
We don’t have to learn it all at once.
We can learn it at our own pace. It’s not a race.
We can learn something together with other people.
We can make as many mistakes as we need to until we master what we want to know.

Maybe we older folks could even relax enough not to force some of our old school values on today’s children.  Do we really need to use school to test and to grade and to sort and to rank quite so much?  Is learning a race?  How will our children ever win a race to the top if they learn to fear getting started?            


  1. The Tech Curious Boomer... I like that!

    Glad to see exploration of what blocks our learning... both structure of classroom memory-print (that's where we 'learn' - via 'teacher') - and emotions of fear (instead of curiosity)

    esp enjoy the tips towards end on learning at own pace, not a race...

    Thank you!

  2. interesting post as always. i wonder if you inadvertently provided an example of how learning can be framed in older, more familiar to the learner, terms when you wrote about DVD programming when I assume you meant DVR. My apparent greater fluency with technological terminology might be indicative of a greater facility for tech schema or concepts due to greater exposure. That being said, there is a general fear of failure and mostly of public failure that pervades many learning environments currently, irrespective of whether it occurs in a formal learning situation. There is, as you point out, an obsession with always being able to evaluate and measure; generally these measures are at best harmless and useless at worst a source of misinformation that leads to poor choices and decisions in policy making. Data stream increases as well as concomitant processing advances have led to a situation where people feel as though operational complexity has increased and since, in their minds, new knowledge is coming online constantly, evaluation needs to be a constant or semi-constant process. The important difference is between greater amounts of data and greater difficulty of operations performed using said data. Raw data amounts have increased but human behaviors and operations have not undergone a massive reboot. We still live essentially the same way as we did prior to the computing revolution. We are now able to look at our lives more frequently, however all this does is provide new opportunities for the heuristics and biases of our cognitive system to rear their heads. This phenomenon is found in the proliferation of polling, surveys and consumer focus testing, educational testing, computerized stock trading, 24 hr news streams and accompanying punditry. Short termism is the fad because with so much data being generated people feel that they can only handle so much and they might as well pay attention to the short term because it's immediate. Accompanying the torrent of new data has been the mandate to use it, in as close to real time as possible. As usual, humanity is learning on the fly how to deal with new paradigms, though frankly after global warming, financial disaster, corporate fraud and environmental atrocities etc, I would have hoped we would proceed with caution in the adoption of paradigms that ignore long term outcomes as long as short term ones conform to desired ends. Increasing mental rigidity is the expected by product of the constant need to absorb new data. That's how the brain works, it finds ways to fit new data in pre-existing schema as a method of resource preservation. It is time and energy consuming to re-evaluate schema and schema activation is a feedback system with biasing naturally built in. One result of such constant brain activation is anxiety as exhibited by the participant in the seminar you described.

  3. Bill - I think you are right on about the difficulties residing with the fear of learning instilled in us by the linear, one-right-answer, you have-to-do-it-all mentality. can't do it any longer and that means living more on the edge. And that is scary. or rather - exhilarating. Online tells me daily that there are so many more people who are better informed, and smarter and more in-the-know than I will ever be. And that's exhilarating because I now have people to learn from and with. And this is the best thing: They are people who love to share and teach!

    Now - as for those poor maligned Luddites...but that's another story.
    all the best,
    - Josie

  4. Bill, One of the biggest inhibitors is that old school fear of BEING WRONG (as if there is a right), and shifting into a mode where mistake-making, errors themselves, are information rather than summative feedback. One of the things that has helped me the most is studying IMPROV, the ways in which play and saying "yes/and" can help break us out of old school patterns.

    I think the image of your son playing with his cell phone is especially evocative. The fact that you are thinking about this, and noticing it, may mean you have scaffolded yourself for breakthroughs.

    Thank you so much for the mention, and for this fine blog!

    (author of Wounded By School)

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  6. When I was about twelve years old, two teachers I thought the world of invited me in for a private chat.

    Standing before them I wilted inside when they informed me that as a writer, I was 'a basket case'.

    I am almost certain that had they known how deeply that assessment would be etched, they would have kept those comments to themselves.

    Over the years I've tried to accept that teachers, no matter how good or well-intentioned, do make mistakes.

    Even so, I've never forgotten those few minutes in my young life. It has been almost forty five years now since that fall morning and yet that judgment still stings as if it were yesterday.

  7. I am not in the education field, but I oversee the adoption of new technology in my workplace. Fear of failing is the biggest inihibitor I see among the older (I'm in my 40's), less tech savvy co-workers. The ironic thing is that they sell new technology to our customers every day.

  8. Great post. A colleague and I were just recently talking about these differences in teaching and learning styles. If we continue to focus on the tools that we currently have - Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. - we are ultimately doing our students a disservice. Don't get me wrong - the tools do make a difference (, but it's the principles governing the tools that we need to make sure our students (and teachers) understand in order to ensure that they're prepared for the next wave of technology and old ideas with new spins.

  9. You are right on about the fears and feelings of intimidation among many of us baby boomers when it comes to technology. But I agree, we must persist. I just found out about the smart pen!