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I like watching videos where experts either explain difficult concepts to learners of different ages or just to kids. The video below is one of the latter.


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Explaining to an adult how to create bioluminescent plants from firefly DNA is challenging, much less kids. The two content experts from MIT were not quite comfortable teaching kids and their attempts illuminate some concepts about how students learn and what an effective teacher looks like.

When one content expert tried simplifying the concept of transferring bioluminescence, she ran into some trouble.

Expert: “…we just ask them to give us some chemicals”.
One child: “Do you tell them?”

Expert: “We just borrow the light from the fireflies…”
Another child: “Do you mean like real borrow or do you just keep it?”

The expert was visibly stunned by the kids’ questions and their teacher intervened with timely and appropriate answers.

An effective teacher is not just knowledgeable in content, she should also be a child and learning expert. As information mushrooms and knowledge needs to be constantly negotiated and updated, being the latter type of expert is critical.

The other expert got the kids to participate in a hands-on activity where they simulated bioluminescence by mixing chemicals in small vials. Instead of hearing about bioluminescence, they tried and saw for themselves.

This is not about appealing to different “learning styles” — which is a myth anyway — but to teach and reinforce with multiple methods and modes. That said, kids generally learn best by what stems from natural curiosity, i.e., experiencing and asking.

The teacher as a child and learning expert asked a critical question at the end of the experiment: “What do you think this could help solve?” She did not provide answers to her learners, but got them to generate answers that required them to think actively about what they just experienced.

This is a continuation of a rant I started yesterday against an STonline article.

I can almost understand why parents would want to attend a forum on factors that influence early childhood cognition. It is hard for any informed parent to believe what they read in the press and they would rather visit the stable and hear from the horses’ mouths. But I worry when the stable opening is organized by the press.

The answer to the question of letting your child use technology is not yes or no. It is knowing about when and how instead of being blinded by fear.

It is never too early to introduce technology to kids, just as it is never too early to teach them about setting rules, how to self-regulate, the consequences of one’s actions, etc. You do not do one (let kids use technology) without doing the other (learn discipline). If you leave kids unsupervised or unmanaged, you cannot expect good to come from it.

All this sounds like common sense. So why are we allowing organizations to not only take advantage of parental fear, but also get parents to part with money to hear expert opinion?
 

ttl by Stitch, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Stitch 

 
The fundamental problem is that we are shortsighted. We tend not to be concerned about the foreseeable future or choose not to learn from our past.

If we let kids watch videos with a mobile device at meals, they will keep doing so because the videos are motivating. This does not seem harmful over the short term because the child is easier to manage. However, the ease of the here-and-now hides longer term problems like an unreasonable dependency on the device, a lack of discipline or internal locus of control, and selfish or antisocial behaviour.

We are just as myopic looking back as we are looking forward. We do not learn from the history of our fear of technology.

This graphic was originally created by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham in their book Bad For You. The image was shared here in 2013.

Every previous generation fears what it does not understand about the current one. It treats the current generation’s technologies and preferences with suspicion. Some might call this neophobia, the fear of the new. Such a fear stems from the fact that the old is established and comforting. The new is the exact opposite.

We need to look back and realize that history repeats itself with every major technology. If we do, we learn that such fear is irrational. We have progressed because a few people chose to ignore that fear and even what passes as expert opinion. They relied on an uncommon common sense to do what they knew was right.

I wonder how much glee STonline had when it sponsored a forum and then ran with the headline Curb use of IT devices by the young, say childhood experts.

The title and writeup [archive] conveniently left out what the two experts they featured seemed to be focusing on in shaping early childhood cognition: The importance of play and a rich language environment. This does not mean that one should exclude technology-based play or interaction.

The first expert, Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, briefly mentioned a range of play in his interview: object, body, social, imaginative, and narrative. The last time I checked, well designed and managed technology enhances and enables all those.

The second expert, Dana Suskin, while cautioning against complete reliance on technology for language development, added that “Skype or FaceTime, or similar response-based interactive style communication tools, do help” [quote from video].

Brown and Suskin were the experts because they probably have the research to back up what they say. But when explained plainly to laypersons, it sounds like common sense to let kids play and to develop language humanistically.

If common sense was that common, why pay good money to fly in experts and run an event to validate or reinforce what you claim you already know?

If we had that collective common sense, why are some parents foolish enough to let mobiles replace person-to-person interaction? They deserve what is coming to them if they do. Like one parent with a seven-year-old reportedly said: “My older son sometimes refuses to feed himself and asks that I feed him while he uses the iPad” [quote from article].

It also seems like the article and video editor did not work in sync.

The article was decidedly anti-technology and old-school. On the other hand, a soundbite from Dr Brown in the embedded video indicated that “parents should let children decide how to play” [quote from video]. Parts of the video were decidedly progressive.

Perhaps STonline was submitting a weird General Paper essay where cons were delivered in text and pros in video. Maybe, but not likely. Folks who read the dead tree version of ST or choose not to watch the video will not see the other side of the story.

For me, the article reeks of maintaining the status quo by repurposing progressive expert opinion and research.

One of Dr Brown’s slides on screen (citing Einstein) stated “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.

  • How intelligent are we when it comes to rolling with change?
  • How much longer are we going to let headlines with “curb use of devices” hold us back?
  • When will we develop enough scientific literacy to find and evaluate such studies so that we make up our own minds?

Most people consider an expert to be the person who knows the most about a particular topic or to be highly skilled in an area.
 

 
That is only a small part of being an expert.

For me, a true expert is one who has tried and failed the most, but continues to try some more with new or modified strategies (failing forward).

Sharing what I learnt from failure is what got me the presentation gig at Bett UK earlier this year. That is also how I prefaced a rehashed presentation at the sixth iteration of #educampsg yesterday.

Some might wonder if you should trust an expert who says s/he has failed the most. I would ask who you would be able to relate to. I would also argue that the expert who learns by failing forward can claim not just theoretical knowledge, but also practical application.

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If you watch this video and you are an information worker, you will relate to Mr Anderson. I know that I do.

If you are a real expert, you will realize that your expertise has little to do with content. It is more about managing expectations and people.

And managing people is sometimes about dealing with their ignorance head on, using it against them, and if you align the stars, eventually educating them.

 
Sometimes I am invited to give a talk or be interviewed because I am an “expert”. Sometimes I am introduced as an “expert”.

I shudder every time I hear that word.

If the shuddering is not physically obvious, and if it is socially polite for me to say otherwise, I inform the person who called me an expert (or I tell the audience) that I am not an expert.

Why am I reluctant to be called an expert?

I think that most people perceive an expert to be on top of his or her field. I am not. I hope I never am.

Being an expert also means you are at your peak. I think I am still exploring the the lay of the land. I am always learning.

If I start thinking that I am an expert, then I fear I might become stubborn or complacent. Enough of that happens already as I age.

I only agree with the expert moniker if i can point out that I have tried and made the most mistakes.

So do not call me an expert. It is more an insult than a compliment.

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I shudder when folks refer to me as an expert in something.

I would agree that I am an expert only if I am thought of as someone who has probably made the most mistakes in a particular area and lived to tell a tale. If I have some measure of success it is because I have failed many enough times to learn what not to do.

But I dislike the expert moniker most of the time.

To me it means that I have somehow arrived. This can create complacency. It can imply that I do not need to improve or learn any more. No one who does knowledge work can afford to do that.

I am not an expert and I refuse to be one.

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