Human Nature: Why “Independent Learning” is Overrated

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We have an all-comedy radio station in Denver—non-stop clips from various comedians. I missed the name of the comic, but one talked about digging through his closet looking at all the junk he had discarded in there. One of the items was his Rosetta Stone CD set. I spent a couple of minutes researching “what percentage complete Rosetta Stone” but couldn’t find the answer right away so I quit looking. I bet it is a very small number. I’ll wager that a lot of people have the idea of learning a new language but don’t follow through.

Then I started thinking about my health club. Every year it gets crowded during January and part of February, but it gets back to normal after that. Seems many people have the idea that this will be the year they start exercising but almost none of them follow through. Then I saw a New York Times article that said that 90% of people who lose weight gain it all back. Seems like most folks have the intention to change shapes but don’t follow through. Then I thought about an adult education class offered at the “free university” in my town that told writers how to self-publish a book. The instructor said almost none of the people attending will actually do it. They all have the idea that there is book inside of them and this will be the year that they write it, but almost none of them will actually follow through.  I had 300 people sign up for the webinar I just did for ASCD but there weren’t 300 in the virtual room when the webinar happened.  Seems lots of folks didn’t follow through.

You can see where I am going with this. One of the outstanding traits of human beings seems to be that we don’t follow through. This truth applies in the world of education, too. You probably saw the recent studies about the completion percentage of online courses. Only ten percent of people who start actually finish. (Rosetta Stone coulda told you that but they won’t, of course).  But MOOCs will transform education!  Some students will sit at home and explore the world and get their degrees!!  Other students will rush home to watch our flipped instruction videos and they will watch over and over until they understand the tricky part!!!

Three things are true of the biggest proponents of the online instruction movement.  First, many are older folks.  They are so impressed by the new gadgets and what they can do.  Years ago, Edison predicted that his invention (movies, of a sort) would transform education.  It didn’t.  And now other older adults are pretty sure video and the Internet will transform education eliminating classrooms and allowing independent, self-created curriculum.  It’s just so cool!!  Second, many are not in the classroom.  Any classroom teacher could tell you that most students need the personal touch, the human contact, the in-person support in order to stay on task.  Not only do large numbers not complete homework, large numbers have a hard time completing work right there in class.  (I hear the response: homework should go away anyhow, and if the lessons were meaningful, then they would complete it! My response to that: dream on.) The successful teacher is one who can inspire, prod, and personally connect, and for that, you must be present to win.  Third, the proponents fail to understand human nature.  Yes, they understand that part of human nature is that we are curious. We do get excited about new things. They missed, however, that we don’t follow through.  MOOCs, flipped class videos, webinars all compete with all the other distractions at home.  Students sorta watch…while eating, texting, checking email and Facebook, watching television, and playing with the dog.  If there is one outstanding feature of Americans it is that they lack discipline.  How did you not notice that?

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe we all need to update instruction.  I am a strong proponent of using today’s tools.  (That’s why I wrote Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations with Technology.)  And I also know that no matter what the tech gadget is, it won’t trump human nature.  I guess my message is settle down.  Don’t get so blinded by the incredible possibilities that you forget who you are dealing with here.  When you finally lose that twenty pounds you have promised yourself you would lose and when you get back to the gym to get in shape and when you finish that Rosetta Stone Spanish CD, then start talking about how independent, self-guided instruction is the future.

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