The Value of Amateurs


I was at a wedding this past weekend and I had a sort of epiphany. I’m not really sure why it was at a wedding rather than anywhere else, but I immediately took the white paper napkin clinging to the bottom of a cold water glass near me and I scrawled out the greatest fallacy of modern education. It is so ingrained into the way in which I teach, I’m not sure I ever would have even recognized it without my constant reflection of how I am using technology in the classroom.

Without too much further exposition, the fallacy is as follows:

Professionals create more valuable content than amateurs.

By calling this statement a “myth” I am not aiming to devalue the work of people who have a lifetime of experience or that I would like to declare that students officially know more than their teachers. Instead, I would like to analyze the way that we define professionals and amateurs, and the kind of respect these kinds of definitions can and should provide.

In our stereotypical understanding these two words, we seem to glorify the professional and vilify the amateur:

We value all that the professional can do for us. He gets the job done. Although you pay a premium for his services, it are always worth it. He has the credentials that tell us he can do what he advertises, and he packages everything so nicely, presenting us with just the right amount of content as to not over or underwhelm. We feel safe with the professional in charge.

Now, the amateur on the other hand, works on his own schedule, according to his own interests. He gives us more information than we need, and more specific details than we could possible comprehend. His excitement is annoying when you consider that he doesn’t have the experience to back up his work. Sure, he is willing to collaborate with you, but you don’t have time for it anyway.  The amateur makes connections to others’ work by remixing it, sometimes by breaking intellectual property laws. The amateur is dangerous.

I would like to now enumerate the actual traits of each worker/learner. This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it gets the point across.

A professional is:

  • Someone who has experience with marketable skills in a given discipline.
  • Someone who has achieved accredited education based upon standardized performance measures.
  • Someone who requires compensation and/or credit for products and ideas.
  • Someone who’s work must remain consistent and thematic.

An amateur is:

  • Someone who has specific skills that allow them to create a specific product.
  • Someone who has achieved personalized education based upon self-assessed interest and achievement.
  • Someone who does not require compensation and/or credit for work.
  • Someone who’s work can be sporadic and follow inspiration in any field.

I may be oversimplifying things a bit in making these statements, but I believe that this dichotomy is the way we encounter the entire field of education. Each student we encounter is an amateur, and we see them through the stereotype. We should, instead, give them the respect that that word really commands.

My examples of amateur wisdom do not come from wikipedia or from digg. They come from my classroom. I would like to show you what my amateur students are capable of.

Professionals would never have created these. No one would have paid money for them or said that they are achievements equivalent to 1400 on the SAT, but they still have great value. Their value is in their their amateur status. Their value is in their passion and authenticity. Their value is in the fact that each one of the students involved in these projects are learning for themselves. To me, that is amazing.

Professionals will always be among us, and I think that they deserve credit for their work. But, real learning happens in the realm of the amateur. Real challenge and job satisfaction happens there to. The real challenge of School 2.0 is incorporating more amateur moments, encouraging all students to become true amateurs.

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