The article, posted to the New York Times' blog The Upshot, was called "How to Prepare for an Automated Future." In it, author Claire Cain Miller summarizes a Pew Research Report on "The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training." I had participated in the survey they used to prepare the report a while ago. I'm honored to be included among the luminaries of teaching and learning whose responses were also excerpted in the Pew Report and the New York Times article, but I was a bit dismayed that my discussion of students' capacity for "self-directed learning" was equated with "motivation" (in the Pew report) and "drive and discipline" (in the NYT.com article).
Miller summarizes my comments as follows: "The problem is that not everyone is cut out for independent learning, which takes a lot of drive and discipline. People who are suited for it tend to come from privileged backgrounds, with a good education and supportive parents, said Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a media historian at Muhlenberg College." Then she quotes my statement that "The fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required in the new workforce means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future." Even though she truncated my comment and excised some words, I'm glad she left that last part in, because the whole "structures of inequality" thing was my key point.
I wish I had saved a copy of my full response to the survey. Below is the excerpt from "The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training" By Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson, in which I was replying to a set of questions including what kinds of "skills can be taught effectively via online systems – especially those that are self-directed" and "which skills will be most difficult to teach at scale?":
Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a professor at Muhlenberg College, replied, “Self-directed study is [a] variable that changes the alchemy of teaching and learning. It is true that most online courses require self-direction. Indeed, when I advise students, I don’t recommend that students take online courses unless they have demonstrated an aptitude for self-direction. But in-person courses may also be self-directed. This works well for some students but not others. Students who are self-directed often have had a very good foundational education and supportive parents. They have been taught to think critically and they know that the most important thing you can learn is how to learn. And they are also are more likely to come from economic privilege. So, not only does the self-direction factor pose a problem for teaching at scale, the fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required for successful completion of coursework towards the new workforce means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future if we rely on these large-scale programs.”
As you can see, I NEVER said anything about drive, discipline, or motivation (though the report suggests I did by placing my quote under the subheading: "Some people are incapable of or uninterested in self-directed learning")
I interpreted the term "self-directed" to refer to qualities like the confidence and capacity to pose questions, rather than just memorize answers; or possessing strategies with which to approach and make sense of unfamiliar texts or subject matter; to have the critical thinking skills to engage with ideas someone else's idea/theory/model, rather than just repeating or reproducing it. Put another way, while self-directed (online) learning may require motivation, drive, and discipline, one can possess all of these traits and still fail at self-directed learning. It's not just about about working hard. Self-directed learning is a skill that must be cultivated and practiced. It is a skill that the increasing reliance on standardized testing actually undoes by discouraging the exploration, mistake-making, and rabbit-hole following that fosters critical thinking. Students can avoid standardized-testing focused schooling if they are economically privileged enough to attend expensive private schools.
Furthermore, institutions of higher education (public and private) are increasingly focusing on "marketable skills" at the expense of critical thinking. Those who have the privilege of attending expensive liberal arts colleges like the one I attended or the one where I currently teach are encouraged to develop capacities for lifelong self-directed learning -- online and off. Certainly there are other avenues for developing this aptitude for self-directed learning, and that's why I brought up supportive parents. In my case I had the privilege of having educated and supportive parents who assured me that the reason I failed the written portion of a standardized test* (twice) was not because I was a hopelessly incapable writer (or that my writing teachers had failed me) but because the test wasn't capable of holistically assessing my writing abilities.
*The test in question was the Connecticut Academic Performance Test. I took Version 1 sometime around 1997 or 1998 and failed the "Interdisciplinary Writing" section. I took it again and failed a second time. Luckily, my class was part of the pilot program, so I wasn't required to pass the test to get my high school diploma, which is now a requirement. I often wonder just what my problem was: I wasn't an AP English student, but I wasn't in the remedial class either. None of my teachers ever expressed concern about my capabilities. Maybe I failed because I'm a slow writer, so I didn't have enough time to organize my thoughts in the time allotted. Maybe it's because I hated the 5-paragraph writing formula, and the test was adjudicated based on that. Whatever the reason, I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who recognized that I was perfectly proficient in writing even if I struggled to fit into the formulaic structure and time limits demanded by the test.
**BTW even though the State of Connecticut didn't think I was a good enough writer to graduate high school, I did manage to write a dissertation and have been published in two major academic journals.
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