Driving with chickens: the pedagogy/technology thing again

Chickens and eggs

I’ve been involved in a conversation recently in which a participant described a problem as one of chickens and eggs – should we look at new technologies and adapt teaching methods to use them, or should we look at how people learn and design technologies to help that process? The latter is the conventional perspective on learning technology design, which I think is fundamentally wrong. I gave a pat answer about the technology/pedagogy dance, adjacent possibles and the need to consider it from a systemic perspective, not as a question of priorities. Thinking about it some more, I have a metaphor that may help to explain my position better.

Main premise: most intentional learning has a destination in mind – learning outcomes, competences, objectives and so on. At least, it has a direction or trajectory.

Getting around without teachers

Some destinations are easy to reach – if it is right in front of you then you can usually walk and don’t really need much assistance.

Further destinations can be reached if there are signposts, more easily if there are roads. Wikipedia and a good old Google search are not bad for this, when the destinations are nearby. 

Some are too far to walk – then we need further assistance. 

Learning technologies

We can more easily reach further destinations if we have a vehicle. Courses, programs of instruction, textbooks and computer-aided instruction are not bad for this. Now we are seriously entering the world of learning technologies.

For efficiency, that vehicle may have many seats, though it will not necessarily take the most direct route (if it needs to pick up or drop off passengers along the way) nor may it drop us precisely where we want to go. That’s the nature of most courses, textbooks and programs.

A vehicle needs a driver. Let’s, for the sake of argument, think of that driver as being the teacher: it’s an ugly metaphor but it quite accurately describes certain pedagogical approaches – especially when travelling in a bus. Of course, the learner can be the driver, or the learner’s friend, or they can take it in turns…teachers don’t have to be formally recognised and certified. Taxis are great, but expensive. One day we might have effective automated versions of taxis, but for now I would not risk my life in one of them.

There’s no point in having a driver if there is no vehicle to drive. The vehicle must have requisite parts like wheels, brakes, an engine, spark plugs (for a petrol-powered vehicle) and so on, must fit on the road, and that needs an infrastructure of garages and so on to support it. Generally speaking, there must be a road, it should be well-maintained and lead in roughly the right direction – at least, in combination, the roads should lead to the destination, with as little discomfort and delay as possible.  We have technologies like classrooms, whiteboards, learning management systems and so on that fulfil that role.

(As an aside, some destinations have poorly made-up roads leading to them and some have no roads at all – then we might need good guides with a fair amount of experience of navigating similar territory. Most PhDs follow that kind of pattern. A parallel set of learning technologies and a pretty interesting one is needed here.)

The driver needs to follow some rules – it’s generally bad to make arbitrary decisions about which side of the road to drive on and how one treats traffic lights, for instance. That doesn’t negate the need for creativity in driving, but it has to follow some constraints. Again, these are part of the technology for learning – softer than the mechanical constraints, but still technologies – and often provided by institutions, regulations, patterns, templates and so on.

Subject matter and pedagogies

The driver needs to navigate effectively – to reach the destination as pleasantly or as fast as possible. Personally, I’m usually a fan of making journeys interesting, but sometimes speed matters more. Knowing the way is not dissimilar to knowing the subject matter, tempered with some other considerations not least of which is knowing what landmarks to point out along the way, which roads to avoid, what the passengers might like to see. That leads us to pedagogy.

The driver needs skills, to apply principles, from simple stuff like not pressing the brake and accelerator at the same time, knowing how to steer, to more complex heuristics about what distance to keep from others in wet weather, how to read a map, or even how to double-declutch. This is actually still part of the technology – repeatable patterns and processes that we can communicate with others that help in the orchestration of phenomena to some purpose. This, combined with a bit of the navigation stuff, is close to the notion of pedagogy.


Transports of delight

And there are good drivers and bad drivers – we can all learn to follow the rules, more or less, but great drivers go beyond that and all drivers, to a greater or lesser extent, adapt the rules, change behaviours, respond differently in novel situations. And that’s what being a great teacher is really about. A great driver can break a lot of rules and still get us there faster, more comfortably, more safely, even in a rickety vehicle, than a bad one who follows all the rules.

Necessary, not sufficient conditions

It makes no sense to talk about some things coming before others on this journey or being more important. To a greater or lesser extent that varies a bit with context, all are necessary, none are sufficient. Wheels are as important as engines are as important as drivers, in the sense that the absence of any would stop us getting to our destination. Sure, we can work around the loss of some things: we might manage without seats, or roads, or signposts, or some traffic regulations, or a good driver, but the journey would be a lot riskier, probably longer (or would feel longer) and less comfortable without them. What matters is that everything should work together and play its part in getting where we want to go, how we want to get there.

Chickens? Eggs? Whatever

So, there’s no chicken and egg problem here. The issue is one of designing a system with parts that play nicely with each other, including pedagogies, subject matter knowledge, digital systems, social systems, organisational systems and a whole lot more.

I suspect there’s fun to be had with this metaphor – what about trains, planes, horses and carts, roller skates, cycles, etc? Who are the traffic police? What about car co-ops? Who decides whether a vehicle is roadworthy? But that’s maybe for another time.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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