The problem of false knowledge, or why many students seem to hate the web

One of the reasons Daring Fireball makes such compelling reading is that John Gruber frequently links to things that, while perhaps Apple-related in some sense, are really broader concerns about writing or thinking.  A couple of weeks ago, for instance, he linked to a nice post about the subjunctive mood, and today he’s tracked down another winner, David Weiss’s splendid essay on “Metacognitive Miscalibration.”

Here’s the problem that interests Weiss: “Why are the unintelligent or uninformed so arrogantly confident while the intelligent and well informed so often unsure and apprehensive? There is something very human to thinking you know more than you really do about a subject or issue.” He’s got great examples from his own coding experience, and, has clearly thought a lot about the problem of sustaining curiosity.

Weiss’s post is well worth reading by anyone who teaches, since this dynamic is one that you see a lot in class discussions.  (It’s also a particular problem among certain kinds of cohorts in which students are frequently assured that they’re better than their peers.)

A weird version of this that I see a lot is a kind of misplaced modesty: I know many students who are convinced that they have things to learn, but that only the teacher can deliver that knowledge.  Their classmates aren’t a source of useful feedback, nor are these students willing to engage seriously with their classmates’ ideas.  This problem crops up in a variety of situations:

  • Peer review in first-year writing
  • Discussion-focused classes

Nothing in my teaching causes more dissatisfaction and pushback from students than the various “Web 2.0” assignments that I use, in their implication that the class is an intellectual community, and that the experience of sharing an interest with others for several months is an important part of the learning process.  At least at first, they don’t want to follow each others’ blogs, they don’t want to know what sorts of resources they find useful . . . the value of peer knowledge and experience appears to be zero.

This has been an ongoing struggle over the past 3 semesters: Many assignments, and all of my born-digital ones, target students’ desire to remain isolated in their academic work.  Which is weird, because all you hear about Millenials is Facebook this and text-message that.  So, in their *social* lives, they want to share and to hear about what people are up to, but they don’t yet see the value of this in academic contexts.

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