Thursday, June 22, 2006

Learning to pick your expert

I'm busy working my way very slowly through the Futurelab paper on Social Software and Learning. There is just so much in there to mull over and digest that it will be some time before I'm done. However, one section that particularly speaks to me is section 3: Does learning change in an information society? It focuses on so many of the issues that I have been following and engaging with in the blogosphere: the learner as creator of knowledge; learner-driven learning; loosening the stranglehold of the national curriculum; increased kinaesthetic learning; the learning community.

One issue that is visited in some detail is 'the crit', defined as "a critical dialogue between peers where work-in-progress is exposed for developmental discussion." With my roots in the theatre, this is home turf to me. I understand crits. They are vital to the process incremental improvement in creative practice, resulting in an iterative spiral, gradually closing in on the ideal. The paper contends that this principle can be transferred to a wider range of learning activities via social media. Some conditions are identified as being essential for the existence of this spiral:

  • attitude: the intention/aspiration to create knowledge
  • autonomy
  • creative chaos
  • redundancy (having more ideas than can be used)
  • access to a variety of resources
Thanks to Tony Karrer's post about whether learning professionals make the worst learners, I found myself assessing my own situation in the terms of these points. It makes for an interesting, and rather telling, exercise.

Central to the success of the crit, has got to be the ability to pick your expert. This skill has got to be right up there with learning how to learn on the list of Things Today's Kids Need to Know. With genuine experts, enthusiastic amateurs and opinionated empty vessels all having equal access to the crit forum, an inability to sort wheat from chaff is going to confuse and possibly even demotivate the learner.

I remember when our first son was born - everyone knew what we should be doing and how, and they were both very liberal and very divergent with their advice. Dress him warmly, dress him lightly; lay him on his back, his side, his front; give him a dummy, don't give him a dummy. We quickly learnt to select one expert/group of experts for each area of his life and to ignore the rest. We listened to the doctor on matters of physical health and ignored him on the correct response to crying; we listened to the hospital staff on matters of bathing, and ignored them on tightly scheduled feeding; we listened to breastfeeding clinic counsellors (all mothers themselves with oodles of experience with both their own and other people's babies) on practically everything else. I ignored my mother-in-law's advice on all subjects completely (as you do). We went from feeling like frazzled failures to the relative peace of knowing whom to trust in any given situation.

When the deluge of critique lands and everyone has a different view, it will remove a great deal of pressure on the learner if he has a mentor, a benchmark by which to assess the value of the contributions. In time, he might outgrow his mentor (I have experienced this myself) and that's fine, too. He simply needs to find another one and redraw the lines, and by then he should have the confidence to do exactly that. But everyone needs a starting point - someone to hold their hand as they learn to cross the street.


Tony Karrer said...

That is SO TRUE about advice around kids. It's quite funny to pick up a few parenting books and read completely contradictory advice.

But I then don't get your point about "picking an expert?" My solution was to go with my gut about what was best - which is a really bad idea according to the business books (but hopefully works with my kids).

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony. I take your point about gut instinct, but when I'm learning something completely new to me, I don't always have a gut instinct to follow. So I guess I meant that when your gut instinct is that you have absolutely no idea what to do here, you need to know whose advice to trust. Also, when you have followed your gut instinct and it turns out to have been wrong, a trusted expert is helpful as you try to identify why it was wrong and what you should have done instead.