Our Influence: Prejudice As Predictor

If you want to see Raymond Lister get upset, tell him that students fall into two categories: those who can program and those who can’t. If you’ve been reading much (anything) of what I’ve been writing recently, you’ll realise that I’ve been talking about things like cognitive developmentself-regulationdependence on authority, all of which have one thing in common in that students can be at different stages when they reach us. There is no guarantee that students will be self-reliant, cognitively mature and completely capable of making reasoned decisions at the most independent level.

There was a question raised several times during the conference and it’s the antithesis of the infamous “double hump conjecture”, that students divide into two groups naturally and irrevocably because of some innate characteristic. The question is “Do our students demonstrate their proficiency because of what we do or in spite of what we do?” If the innate characteristic conjecture is correct, and this is a frequently raised folk pedagogy, then our role has no real bearing on whether a student will learn to program or not.

If we accept that students come to us at different stages in their development, and that these development stages will completely influence their ability to learn and form mental models, then the innate characteristic hypothesis withers and dies almost immediately. A student who does not have their abilities ready to display can no more demonstrate their ability to program than a three-year old child can write Shakespeare – they are not yet ready to be able to learn, assemble, reassemble or demonstrate the requisite concepts and related skills.

However, a prejudicial perspective that students who cannot demonstrate the requisite ability are innately and permanently lacking that skill will, unpleasantly, viciously and unnecessarily, cause that particular future to lock in. Of course a derisive attitude to these ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’ students will make them withdraw or undermine their confidence! As I will note from the conference, confidence and support have a crucial impact on students. Undermining a student’s confidence is worse than not teaching them at all. Walking in with the mental model that separates the world into programmers and non-programmers forces that model into being.

Since I’ve entered the area of educational research, I’ve been exposed to things that I can separate into the following categories:

  • Fascinating knowledge and new views of the world, based on solid research and valid experience.
  • Nonsense
  • Damned nonsense
  • Rank stupidity

Where most of the latter come from other educators who react, our of fear or ignorance, to the lessons from educational research with disbelief, derision and resentment. “I don’t care what you say, or what that paper says, you’re wrong” says the voice of “experience”.

There is no doubt that genuine and thoughtful experience is, has been, and will always be a strong and necessary sibling to the educational and psychological theory that is the foundation of educational research. However, shallow experience can often be built up into something that it is not, when it is combined with fallacious thinking, cherry picking, confirmation bias and any other permutation of fear, resentment and inertia. The influence of folk pedagogies, lessons claimed from tea room mutterings and the projection of a comfortable non-reality that mysteriously never requires the proponent to ever expend any additional effort or change what they do, is a malign shadow over the illumination of good learning and teaching practice.

The best educators explain their successes with solid theory, strive to find a solution to the problems that lead to failure, and listen to all sources in order to construct a better practice and experience for their students. I hope, one day, to achieve this level- but I do know that doubting everything new is not the path forward for me.

I am pleased to say that the knowledge and joy of this (to me) new field far outstrips most of the other things that I have seen but I cannot stress any more how important it is that we choose our perspectives carefully. We, as educators, have disproportionally high influence: large shadows and big feet. Reading further into this discipline illustrates that we must very carefully consider the way that we think, the way that our students think and the capability that we actually have in the students for reasoning and knowledge accumulation before we make any rash or prejudicial statements about the innate capabilities of that most mythical of entities: the standard student.

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