Ego Has No Place in Education

I started teaching myself web development nearly a year and a half ago (WOW!), and I’ve been stuck on a plateau for a while now. I had a lot of web development knowledge in the Front End, within HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and other languages.

[If you’re not sure of the differences between front and back end development, please check out my article linked above, “Web Development Basics: Back-End vs. Front-End”, but that’s not necessary to keep reading!]

After working a web development contract for the first time in March, I learned that working for other companies to produce their code is very unappealing to me.

I found that I was losing my passion, and once again being encouraged not to think too “big” or “out there”. Keep in mind, this particular group was using Adobe ColdFusion, a largely irrelevant markup-based platform.

I decided to dedicate the summer purely to figuring out what I wanted to do with my skills. I researched, I read blogs, I talked to industry professionals (or just about anyone who would listen) about my concerns and interests in the world of web development. And after a couple of months… I think I finally figured out what I’m wanting to do.

After my experience self-teaching web development, I know there are a lot of things that I could have done better or more effectively. I want to help other students by:

  • Helping them to discover the way that they learn most effectively
  • Deliver relevant content and supplemental learning materials
  • Aiding advanced web development students and bootcamp graduates to close the gap between their education and the industry’s demands
  • Keeping the cost of education low or free, so that it’s accessible to all who pursue it

“It” came to me while recording my origin story on my first podcast episode. It tapped on my shoulder again as I was engulfing myself in research for the second episode, entitled “How I Learned How I Learn”. Both experiences brought one thing to light for me: I had a terrible experience with education growing up.

A central theme that keeps rearing its head is ego. For the purposes of this article, I am speaking of ego specifically as one’s sense of self-importance. Please also keep in mind that students can exhibit high self-importance, or low self-importance.

The greater the ego, the more resistance there appears to be to learning. In other words, you may be sitting in a classroom, but if you’re not ready to learn from this particular teacher on this particular day, because you feel a variety of feelings about them and their/your peers’ perception of you, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

If you’re currently teaching yourself web development or software engineering, be mindful of your mindset going into learning, and keep your ego in check. Here are the three main reasons I’ve identified why ego is harmful to the learning experience.

#1: Student ego gets in the way of their learning

In my particular case, it wasn’t an issue that I thought I knew it all. Rather, I was afraid of trying to learn anything and failing.

Conversely, students can also fall prey to being “know-it-alls”. Regardless of the root cause, one of the worst things that you can bring into a classroom is a closed mind. (#1 is a unmuted cell phone.)

I was a very stubborn and self-conscious child and young adult. I didn’t like to take advice from people, and therefore felt defensive when being corrected after making mistakes. This wasn’t always the case, however. My grandfather encouraged me to try and fail, focusing on my ability to think critically, and solve problems.

So when did things change? It started when I became school-aged.

Surrounded by other students, many of which could be very cruel, I found myself closed up and anxious. Fear of asking a stupid question becomes the road block to success. By being afraid of how I would be perceived if I failed, I unknowingly denied myself one of the greatest gifts in life — knowledge.

Solution: Students need to know that it’s okay to learn, and teachers need to be prepared for both fearful (low self-esteem) and know-it-all learners. Engage the fearful learner with small wins to show them that they can understand simpler concepts, with simple and consistent rewards.

#2: From a young age, teacher ego can harm children’s ability to learn freely in the future

You know what an egotistical teacher looks like. They believe that they are as great as their knowledge, and are untouchable by mere mortals. Whether or not a teacher’s entire persona is this way, or simply in their “domain” (the classroom), believing that the teacher is the center of an educational environment is misguided and harmful.

They will punish students who dare to question their authority or superiority, rather than having deeper discourse about their role in students’ learning. They will leave students behind who are underperforming, or readily outsource their academic support rather than working with them directly.

Now, before anyone objects: I know many teachers who are not egotistical. They focus on student learning before all, but their main obstacle is time and resources with growing class sizes. I completely understand that often times, teachers simply cannot devote the types of resources they need to their class. This is not a comment toward those individuals that are genuinely trying to make the world a better place, one student and class at a time.

This is more about the individuals who see their knowledge as proprietary, and feel a need to defend their role. While respect is of paramount importance between teachers and students, power dynamics will always come into play. Students are failed when they can’t learn the information via the preferred teaching style of the teacher, and will fear engagement in the future.

Solution: Teachers need to understand that they are not at their center of their students’ learning. While there are often many restrictive components to teaching style that are imposed by administration, it is unfair and ineffective to leave students in the lurch because they don’t meet your preferred delivery style. Ask “is there a better way that I can explain this for anyone?”, rather than asking if anyone “doesn’t get it”, or calling out blank stares.

#3: Ego tells us that it’s not acceptable to fail

Failure is one of the greatest ways to learn. And yet, our current educational system encourages students to fear failure. It turns into a permanent scar on one’s record, or a discussion with one’s parents. Even in collegiate environments, it translates directly to lost money and time.

Again, I understand that a big chunk of this dynamic is perpetuated by teachers’ need to move classes along, as well as other factors that are largely out of teachers’ hands. There is simply not enough time in the school year for individualized education (this is where open education comes in, but that’s a topic for another article).

However, teaching a child that it is unacceptable to fail is harmful. Any adult knows that failure is an accepted part of the learning process. The only way to fail is by not showing up.

Solution: Don’t punish students for failing. Take a bit more effort and time to understand the student’s block to learning, and give them the tools to identify it themselves and devise a solution.

Overall, we can do better

There’s no reason that we can’t remind ourselves who education is really for: the students. There’s no reason that we can’t fight our urge to label students (inaccurately), based on their ability to absorb information as it’s delivered.

A negative experience with education can affect someone still in their formative years for a lifetime. And it has shocked me how many others have spoken up in solidarity when I say, unequivocally, that my educational experience was mostly miserable.

Please stay tuned for more posts on this topic, and a segue into the benefits of self-education. I’d also love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter @lavie_encode.

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