First, as busy as I am being an early elementary classroom teacher who has a rather long commute and is tired at the end of every day, I’ve really enjoyed this course. It doesn’t hurt that Unit 1 is all about ISTE’s 1st standard for educators, learner, or learning to learn (meta learning, if you will), something near and dear to my heart. For major portions of my professional careers (especially sales, cooking, and technology), I’ve been an autodidact, not necessarily because I’m some pioneer in those fields in the macro sense, but in the micro sense, yes, I’ve wanted to learn how to do things when there hasn’t been any formal way to learn those things close to me or anyone close to me to learn them from. I could qualify that by saying there were people who could have taught me the basic skills (like sales and marketing, cooking, database design, web scripting, etc.), but I either didn’t have the time and money to learn from them that way, I wanted more specialized knowledge than they may have had (e.g. cooking Vietnamese or Thai food), or I didn’t know exactly who I could gain the knowledge from, i.e. in the jargon of EdTech, I had a very limited personal learning network (PLN).

Any failure to create or expand my PLN that would have included the necessary people who could have helped me gain knowledge and skills was ultimately my own responsibility and a result of my ignorance, laziness, or stubbornness. Given my past experiences, I’m good about finding stuff on my own, and I want to encourage my students to do that as well, but obviously one of my weak spots is expanding and tapping into my PLN, and I have to teach my students that they can and should do that too. That means I need to show them how. In 2nd grade, they’re not really specialists. They’re much more aware of their academic strengths and weaknesses than they are of their cultural and personality differences. But they exist and they can learn from each other. I do try and teach them that they can be teachers too, and they really do love helping their classmates.

The old debate about the value of knowledge gained by education versus knowledge gained by experience is very relevant here. Several times during this course, I’ve come across good illustrations of the debate in my own life when I’ve learned that some of the concepts (like SAMR and connectivism) I’ve been ruminating on for a long time independently of any formal or informal learning environment or PLN have already been named, well thought out, and practiced concepts in the fields of education already. I feel sad I didn’t learn of them before so I could have integrated them long before now and applied them more deliberately. Now I firmly believe in the gravity of education, that experience must orbit around established knowledge and skill, not just because I’m an educator.

Structured education, either in a formal setting (such as school), a less formal setting (online courses such as the COETAIL cohorts), or via direct lineage transmission (aka a guru or mentor) is simply a shortcut so that learners can leapfrog the it takes to learn from the mistakes others have already made and they can learn the field and the vocabulary of that field. The more I study teaching and economics (no, I’m not going to teach economics, it’s a hobby), the more I enjoy learning the vocabulary associated with those field and being able to use those vocabularies to describe the world.

As I mentioned in a recent post, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and the fastest way to get there in order to help ourselves, our fields, our societies, and even humanity evolve higher and further is to quickly understand those fields via education. We will never make much progress if are just trying to invent the wheel when the wheel was invented a long time ago. There are Formula 1 race cars, rocket ships, and deep space exploration vehicles now. We need to understand how and why they work, but it’s a waste of our time to invent them from scratch. We, as educators, are needed “out there”‘, on the bleeding edge.

Experience has its place, right alongside education, and that’s a critical and exciting part of the educational experience. Good educators introduce ideas and let students play with them. Direct teaching isn’t everything and it isn’t bad, it has its place. Too much direct teaching results in unengaged students who don’t trust for themselves how the world works. Students have to practice what the educator has preached so they know for themselves. Exploration without a basic road map is a floundering waste of time. There are a lot of good metaphors about teaching (“If you give a man a fish…”, “you lead a horse to water…”, and a whole lot more I can’t think of right now) for a reason. Even if we have an excellent PLN full of highly-skilled, wise, and experienced people, we ultimately we have to learn for ourselves, we have to internalize what we’re learning in order to truly understand it and then be able to play with it.

Since we’re curious, skeptical, disobedient, silly, and ambitious animals, we have to experience things for ourselves. This means we’re going to make a ton of mistakes, and this is actually wonderful. If we don’t get comfortable with failing (and getting up again, of course), then we’ll never get far. I’ve seen it many times in the classroom and in life that fearless students make incredible progress, incredibly fast. The classroom and the school need to be very safe spaces for students to fail without fear of more embarrassment than they’re naturally going to feel when they make a mistake. Trying, regardless of whether an attempt is successful, needs to be supported, even celebrated.

Often, we’ll try something the way the conventional wisdom of our schooling or PLN dictates we should do it, and then we’ll get off the trail, head off into the bushes, start going crazy, trying stuff to see when it breaks, if we can do it faster, better, or just in a way that suits our needs or temperament. Sometimes we’ll find other ways. Sometimes we won’t. But trying, failing, trying, succeeding, trying, succeeding in a new way, trying, screwing up – this is what we do, it’s how we evolve. There are generally many paths to the same result, and some of them are better paths, not just better for us.

Our formal and informal education and our PLNs can only really give us road maps. We won’t always stay on them, and that’s ok. We don’t know everything and our teachers don’t know everything either. Good educators want their students to keep filling in the unknown parts of the map and have the next generation of students stand on our shoulders.