Learning as productive narcissism?

In a conversation the other day someone asked whether the fundamental way people learn has changed. The idea was that constant exposure to multi-tasking, new child rearing philosophies, and the rapid emergence of new technologies has created a perfect storm that has fundamentally changed the way that children grow up and learn.  My initial reaction was to think of a different question, which is whether we now value different skills, and our perceptions are therefore skewed towards our ability (or lack thereof) to cultivate those skills. Sherry Turkle, in ‘Video Games and Computer Holding Power’, showed that the boy who constituted her case study, Jarish, was so interested in video games that he was motivated to learn physics so that he could appropriately code the actions of a ball in a video game. This is, essentially, an interest in applied knowledge.

This interest isn’t a fundamentally different way of learning, but I think we often conflate the two in our present-day discussions of technology in education. What Jarish implied he wanted through his longing was a different way of contextualizing content for the purpose of developing particular skills. At a higher level, we could call this motivating students through biasing content to their interests. Nothing wrong with that at all, and it is a nice portrait of human psychology and the narcissism that Turkle also discusses in her piece. Her focus, of course, is more on the way in which we can become so besotted with computers that we lose ourselves, but thinking back on that conversation about human learning made a connection between the two for me – we’re motivated by seeing that perfect reflection of ourselves, so logically we’d be most motivated to learn that which best reflected ourselves. I don’t think I’d consider that new, but I think our ways of productively harnessing that narcissism have improved.  So, when we talk about problem-based learning, flipping the classroom, teaching with technology, MOOCs, or any other kind of “of the moment” educational trend, I’d argue that we’re not really talking about a fundamental restructuring of learning but of better catering to inherent human narcissism to improve a particular set of outcomes we presently value. Make the topic matter to the student, and the student is more likely to retain whatever it is we’re aiming for.

Will be interested to hear where this piece led others in our seminar.

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