How do you learn to use a new piece of software (or web service or smart phone)?  I notice that some people press all the buttons, others prefer step-by-step instructions in the form of “press this button, then press that button.”  Some want to watch an experienced user, then experiment on their own (and I’m sure there are lots of other in-between approaches). 

I got to thinking about this because my partner (who is quite uneasy about computers) was trying to email me an address from an electronic address book, but wrote it out on paper then typed it in.  When I suggested copying and pasting, the response was “I don’t know how to copy in this program.”  It’s an interesting point.  Not everyone knows that there are software conventions determined by the operating system.  But in the absence of that knowledge, I think some users would try the “copy” routine that worked for them in other programs, just to see if it worked.  Others would not trust themselves to try something in which they haven’t been directly instructed.

Does anxiety about new technology cause people to not experiment?  Or does the lack of habit/experience with experimenting cause the anxiety?  Or both?

I discussed this with a friend over dinner.  She was describing her attempts to encourage broader use of the electronic media available at her workplace, and is definitely a “press all the buttons” kind of user.  She is not a tech professional, and she is not 22, so the stereotypical answers are clearly inadequate.  I asked her where she learned to engage with unfamiliar technology that way.  Her answer was, “from my long-standing distrust of humans.”  We shared a laugh, but it gradually seemed less funny. 

I don’t think she doesn’t trust people to be honest.  I take it to mean that she doesn’t trust people to be right.  At least not all the time, and not comprehensively.  It connects to a very interesting exchange that happened at Casting Out Nines and Gas Station Without Pumps.  Does trusting our teachers make it easier to learn?  Or harder?

I think a better question is “trust them to do what?”

When I am learning from someone (I include the authors of books), I need to trust that they will respect me.  I also need to trust that they are qualified and experienced with the material. For the sake of my learning, I also need to not trust them to be right.  It’s possible there’s a typo or that the teacher misspoke (or truly misunderstands).  It’s much more possible that what I understood is not what the author/teacher meant.  If I “trust” my teacher to “tell me the truth,” what I am really trusting is my own perception of what they meant — which is highly fallible even if the source material is accurate.  Besides the problem of miscommunication, there’s a deeper problem: trusting a source to be right means reasoning from authority — and that’s faith, not science.  If students are engaged in an un-scientific reasoning process, it undermines whatever scientific content we are reasoning about.

Where it falls apart in my classroom: it’s hard for my students to distinguish between not assuming their teachers are right, vs assuming their teachers are wrong. 

Homework: figure out how to convince students that they shouldn’t trust me to be right even though a lot of their schooling tells them that’s blasphemous; also, convince students that they should trust me to respect them even though a lot of their schooling tells them I won’t.