Fifty years ago, Postman & Weingartner (1969) understood that the educational conventions of their time would be insufficient for the students of 2019. Their work encouraged us to think about how we might prepare students with strategies for a future whose only constant is change. Self-directed learning in the flavours of McMaster’s Bachelor of Health Sciences Program (BHSc, Class of 2018) have been my limited exposure to a curriculum that has attempted to inoculate students against educational inertia. In the same romantic sense as Postman and Weingartner, Assistant Dean Del Harnish believed, with quiet and steadfast confidence, that students could meaningfully direct their own learning. I owe the better faculties of my reasoning and my expanded sense of what is possible to the provocation of educators like Del. However, despite sharing similar sensibilities for relentless self-education, I cannot help but recognize two looming spectres for students entering such programs: a proclivity to satisfice when faced with educational challenges, and a feigning of expertise. I share these thoughts because, in an information age, self-direction will require a voluntary return to rigour of effort and thought amid a poverty of attention.
In my experience, peers with well-established but flexible ways of knowing through didactic forms, problem solving, and repeated self-reflection exceed outstandingly in a self-directed curriculum. To meet the needs of courses offered through the broader university, such students are able to memorize for coursework, all while being able to share confidence in addressing new problems and reflecting upon their practices in cases of failure. This trifecta usually involves a high degree of self-motivation because their explicit curricula merely serves as the starting line for their sustained learning. In practice, I have noticed that self-direction devolves readily into self-indulgence. Students make ‘satisficing’ decisions, particularly when there are palpable competing interests to one’s curricular education and surrounding extra-curricular activities. Some students satisfice and short-change their own educational experience by identifying where their effort might be sufficient to arrive at their ideal grade and then redirect their efforts elsewhere. For example, in a biochemistry inquiry course, in our learning of how streptomycin may bind to the 30S ribosome, it is comforting for students to settle at answers at a level of explanatory depth availed to them by a well-written textbook or review article. The ensuing steps of learning the pharmacokinetics of streptomycin from the primary literature may be less comforting, and this level of exploration is often avoided. Decisions like these demonstrate a kind of bounded rationality articulated by Herbert A. Simon, which may explain how the ‘efficient’ student juggles a seemingly broad, diverse portfolio of extracurriculars at the expense of perseverance through difficult problems (Simon, 1969). I describe this kind of person so critically because I am this kind of person—and I have been reflecting upon ways I might change, to better support myself to think and work towards difficult, thorny problems in a process of protracted struggle.
In an information age, the satisficer leverages a swath of secondary analyses to generate what might appear to be an original opinion. On closer inspection, this is an exercise in feigning expertise. For like-minded students afflicted with diverse educational agendas, conflicted allegiances to different bodies of knowledge make it challenging to identify what ought to be learned, and when. While I learned laterally across disciplines such as bioinformatics, ethics, and global health, I grappled with the feeling of being an imposter in each of these communities. Dancing between different disciplines, without the habit of mind to appreciate the rigour of a single discipline, my attention was divided among different academic communities. This behaviour was encouraged when I could feign expertise by sharing the researched basics of an argument to a tutor with limited expertise in this area. The relative knowledge gradient impressed upon others a rigid foundation to this knowledge, encouraging me and my peers to feign expertise. I became aware of my own delusion of competence when I attempted to speak about Nietzsche to a Nietzsche scholar, who had steeped themselves in both the historical and intellectual milieu of Nietzsche’s work. I realized that reading a series of secondary articles and cursory conversations on his philosophy could only cheaply emulate an expertise developed through persistent thought and struggle. For learners in 2019, the ease with which we can share half-baked opinions like my own makes it necessary to critically appraise such claims. I fear such appraisal is generally instructed to encourage students to evaluate the work of others, instead of directing such attention inwards.
I continue to share Del’s belief that students might be able to direct their own learning. I continue to hope that both students and faculty recognize the looming challenges of challenging students to persist consistently along paths of higher rigour—and higher learning—when satisficing may appear at first to be sound. In the words of economist Herb Simon (1969),
“in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else—a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that it might consume.”
These are challenges that both students and faculty in 2019 will have to face together—against the sequela of purposefully depriving ourselves the attention to direct our learning. At risk is a status quo of misinformation from satisficed learning, shared by people with feigned expertise.
Postman, N. & Weingartner. (1969). Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York, NY: Delta Publishing Co., Inc.
Simon, H.A. (1969). Designing organizations for an information-rich world. Brookings Institute Lecture. Carnegie-Mellon University.