Be Not Afraid

Several years ago I was helping out at a school book sale (private school, parents bought textbooks) and was standing behind the computer science books so I could answer any questions. A parent of an incoming student stopped by and said that their child knew a lot about computers. “Probably more than his teachers.” If I thought he knew who I was I would probably have taken great offense. But I wrote it off with the assumptions that a) he had no idea how much the computer teachers knew and b) he had no idea how little his son actually knew.

Students, at least in high school and earlier, generally know less about computer technology than they think they do. They generally know far less than what their parents and other adults think the students know. That’s not to say that there are not students out there with extensive knowledge of computers out there. There are. But knowing how to IM, download from iTunes, find funny videos on YouTube and turn on a computer doesn’t make someone an expert. Often the knowledge that students have is more limited than meets the eye. Recently a teacher I know asked a long time iPod using student for some help setting up her iPod. The student was all over downloading music but had no idea at all about downloading applications or podcasts.

I used to watch students taking a placement test for a computer applications course. These were students who self-selected and declared themselves more than knowledgeable enough to skip that course. Generally about a quarter of them were right. On the other hand I saw some amazing things. A spreadsheet “expert” taking out a calculator to add a row of numbers so they could enter the result into the computer. No really! Honestly I think I could teach the average adult who was a willing learner enough to pass that placement test in a couple of hours. They may not have retained it all much beyond the test but they would know enough to figure things out again later. It’s not really so complicated.

I think many of us let technology intimidate us. We think we’re too old to learn new things. Plus we see kids pick up a lot of technology as if they were natives to it. (I don’t believe they are and a real expert, danah boyd, says much the same thing) This scares us still more. But really most adults have the skills, the background, the intelligence, the ability to learn that makes catching up with students not so bad. Most of us just need the will, the attitude, the motivation and perhaps a patient tutor.

And if students know something we don’t, so what? We learn other things from them all the time so why not technology? Students don’t mind sharing what they know. They do it with peers (do you think all those kids figure their iPods out on their own? Not hardly) and they are willing to help adults. This can actually build mutual trust and respect.

If students start going off in new directions or beyond what their teacher knows, so what? Rather than see this as a threat many teachers I know see this as an opportunity to learn with students, to model lifelong learning, and to build teamwork between teacher and student. What’s wrong with saying “OK we’re going beyond what I know so let’s learn it together.” Seems just about ideal to me.

Knowledge in the world is expanding far too quickly for us to limit our students to what their teachers already know. It’s an exciting new world out there but we need to face it together and with some courage. And, yeah, perhaps some humility and a sense of humor.

Comments (3)
  1. Chris Eargle says:

    My computer science teacher in high school was a coach who only knew what was in the text book. I’m sure many teachers know computer science well, but it was not the case in my situation. I went into the class with less knowledge than the teacher (I didn’t know pascal at the time), but was far beyond the teacher within a month. This was primarily because I was actually interested in programming, whereas the teacher only cared about doing his job and not actually learning.

  2. AlfredTh says:

    Chris, that happens sometimes because many schools do not place a high priority on computer science. Sad but true.

  3. Jay Urish says:

    One time a long time ago I took the supervisor password away from my computer science teacher. She was really mad and wrote me a referral to go to the office. I gave it back later….

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