Op-Ed: Kids Are Not Waiting For Us To Teach Them

Back in 2006, I was reintroduced to the concept that kids are not waiting around for the adults to teach them things that they want to learn.

Back then there was a popular YouTube video of Jeong-Hyun Lim, a 23 year old South Korean, who taught himself to play Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and posted it online.

Here is what it looked like:

Since the video was posted, almost 3 million viewers have watched it. While that in itself was an impressive number, what happened after the video was posted was even more impressive: Thousands upon thousands of people, mostly younger, from across the globe, used that video to learn how to play Canon in D for themselves.

They then posted their efforts online, creating a huge online community of self-learners. The ones that struggled got tips from those that had mastered the piece. They old way of learning how to play a song on guitar went out the window.

Instead of buying a book, learning keys and chords, and progressing up from the “basics” to where they could tackle the more complicated piece, they jumped right over the beginning and right into the hard. It was amazing to see.

Even today, Youtube is full of people from around the world playing that singular piece of classical music in a variety of formats. But it all started, basically, with a 23 year old South Korean with little or no formal music training.

Educators across the world watched this phenomenon, and the more intune ones started to rethink their methodologies. Did learning always have to be scaffolded? (That practice of starting out slow and with “the basics” and moving slowly into the more complicated?) This video, and the accompanying videos uploaded by kids all across the world, seemed to indicated that perhaps that method was suspect at best, working for some, but not necessarily for all.

Why start at the basics when you can jump right into the more complicated? Why learn to add when you can already multiply? Why learn the alphabet when you can teach yourself to read?

Another interesting aspect of that video and its fallout was that the students were essentially blowing up the traditional learning model of having to rely on an in-house expert, a teacher for instance, in order to gain knowledge. The experts were wherever you could find them, in this case, YouTube or any social media.

Here, in practice not in theory, was a community of thousands of learners teaching themselves how to do a complicated task without the need or the want of a formal teacher. They simply logged in, watched the video, and imitated what they saw.

About the same time that the “Canon in D” video came out, another video surfaced of a young man, Nelson Smith, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, who was trying to learn how to start a fire using the bow drill method.

He was being terribly unsuccessful, and in desperation, he recorded himself trying and failing, and posting the video online. He asks the audience, the world, what he is doing wrong. Could someone help him?

Within 24 hours, he had over 2500 replies explaining to him what exactly he was doing incorrectly. Among the replies was a member of an Australian aboriginal tribe that explained to him that how to correct his mistakes, as well as a short history lesson on how aboriginal people had been doing this method of fire starting for thousands of years, and still do so to this day. (Did it strike you as odd that Australian aborigines had Youtube? It shouldn’t.)

What happened here? The learner completely skipped over the “traditional” learning styles and went straight to the experts, asking not his peers, not his teacher, but asking the WORLD to help him learn how to start his fire. Now, his example is not an exception.

Back then, it was used as an example of the changing face of learning. How many of us simply log into YouTube to seek how to do something, from changing the headlight on your car to speaking a new language? If you have to learn something, chances are there is a video or a website that explains how to do it.

Even you probably, have changed the way you learn. You probably no longer rely solely on books or libraries to get your information from. Want to learn how to plant corn, weave a basket or paint a watercolor? You probably go online to learn how.

Students have learned to use the new media for academic and non-academic purposes, mixing them in and out, interchangeably. And have taken the lead, finding, using, and sharing sites that can jump over the traditional methods of learning in a class setting.

They have run far in front of traditional learning styles that teachers are taught to teach with, not waiting any longer for the learning to come to them. Don’t understand how to integrate an equation?

Why wait for the teacher when Khan Academy has hundreds of videos? They are now going to the learning and becoming the defacto teachers. The teacher in the classroom is slowly no longer the only expert for students to access. Schools and libraries are no longer the only places for learning.

Smart teachers are learning to be more of a conductor of knowledge in their classroom learning symphony, directing students to the proper places to learn rather than simply being the sole source of information. This is something teacher preparation classes are still struggling with. We used to encourage teachers to move from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”

In other words, stop simply spouting the knowledge and start showing students how to access it on their own. There simply is too much information available now for any single teacher or school or school district to be the single arbiter of information.

That plea, started back in the 1980’s is now starting to come to life in schools across the country.

The students are forcing the issue, with the help of technology and the wellspring of common knowledge now easily accessible to anyone anywhere. It would be smart for schools and school districts to acknowledge the change has come and to shift the way we teach to match the way students are now learning. Otherwise teaching and teachers risk becoming anachronisms.

PS: as a side note: I could not locate the second video above, so I reached out to my professional online learning community, who was able to get me the link within less than 4 hours. Thanks to Will Richardson for the link @willrich45


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.