Is learning from YouTube like having someone chew your food for you?

stewartI’ve noticed this a lot recently: Once they’re past the basics, I tend to refuse to give answers to the kids in my coding groups, instead suggesting they start by doing some research. I view this as the key to learning to code – it’s not about memorising a language, it’s about being able to look things up and know where to use them. What has hit me, though, is a marked difference in the way the kids do this and the way I’d do it. They use videos; and I find that baffling.

Watching a video will, on average, take 2-5 minutes to give you an answer. Now, sure, that answer comes with pictures and real-time movements; but that’s a lot of watching for answer that you could get in a few seconds of reading. But many kids seem to find this both normal and even necessary. I do not, by the way, think this has anything to do with learning styles as such – it might for some students, but I think that it’s more indicative of another issue: I think students are looking for pre-digested information.

There is so much information available these days, that students are simply looking for the ultimate summary. They want the Wikipedia article where someone else has already sifted the primary sources, or the YouTube video which simply spells out the answer in easily followable steps.

While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, it is limiting. What if the answer is not amendable to simple summarising, or if there’re multiple approaches to choose between? The answer to that in a class is to stick your hand up and ask the teacher or facilitator for the cut-through; but in real life there’s not always someone to ask. In real-life you need to be able to do the research that leads to the answers, and that’s something that my pre-Internet generation was taught to do as an everyday part of learning.

This is also indicative of a wider problem with resilience. The idea that you can just go and get the nicely packaged ‘answer’ freights in with it the idea that all answers are easily achieved. What happens when the first couple of things you try don’t work? That’s when you need to be able to buckle down and try ten more approaches, come at the problem from different angles, and rely on yourself not upon YouTube. That’s the only way to progress beyond a lightweight level of understanding and achievement.

If someone chews your food for you, you’ll never build up the muscles required to do it for yourself in the future.

The image, by the way, is John Stewart eating pre-chewed food for reasons of politics and humour.

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