Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The myth of exponential knowledge

Last year Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a big splash by telling us that more information is created every two days than was created from the dawn of time until 2003. This is an alarming find, even if the numbers are fudged quite a bit. The quote wasn't aimed at educators, but many in the EdTech community took this quote and ran with it. The message Schmidt delivered fit very neatly into the narrative many radical educators subscribe to-- that teaching specific factual knowledge is "20th century" and we should be teaching "how to find knowledge" in real time or whatever.

It doesn't take an expert critical thinker to see the huge hole in this line of reasoning. The reason this is a somewhat meaningless factoid is that there has always been more knowledge in the world than we could possibly teach to students. I can remember sitting in the library on SUNY Stony Brook's campus and looking around at the over-stuffed shelves of books on just one bookshelf on one floor and thinking "I will never be able to read even a respectable fraction of the books in here."

This should be obvious prima facie to any objective person, yet that quote gets passed around, re-tweeted, quoted, time and again in EdTech circles. Why?

My theory is that many educators would rather teach their own curriculum or let students design their own curriculum than deliver content designed, sequenced and scaffolded by others. I can understand this sentiment and relate. Having autonomy is a wonderful feeling for teachers and students alike. Just because it feels great and makes you look forward to learning doesn't mean it is the best way to educate an individual, however.

I sat on a curriculum planning team and got to see firsthand that the sequence and scaffolding of the concepts were well thought-out. The age-appropriate lessons for 4th grade were extensions and expansions of the lessons for 3rd grade. The lessons for 3rd grade were extensions and expansions of the lessons for 2nd grade and so on up and down the line. I once had a discussion with Clay Shirky about Math curriculum and he unequivocally told me that the current progression is about as good as he can imagine.

Curriculum is about giving people a foundation to learn more. Cognitive science teaches us that people learn things that build on previous knowledge. This latticework of previous knowledge is called a schema. In other words, skipping steps or zig-zagging around a well-planned sequence of lessons makes learning more difficult.

A curriculum is not meant to be a complete information dump of an all-encompassing human knowledge base. It is meant to provide a broad enough schema for people to absorb and internalize new understandings as they encounter them. Information that does not connect to our existing schema is either ignored or quickly forgotten. Once we understand this fact about how we learn we can see how off the rails the conclusions we draw about exponential information can be.

So let's translate conclusions people draw from Schmidt's quote into the language of cognitive science:

"We need to spend less time building the schemata vital to acquiring new understandings and spend more time teaching people how to do keyword searches on Google for things they won't understand once they read them."

Okay, maybe that's a bit snarky, but it is also accurate.

Curriculum designers are knowledge cartographers- they have been down the road we want our students to travel and they share their experience. We don't need to re-invent the wheel ourselves because we have the benefit of the wisdom of experienced designers.

There is a counter-lesson in here though. Maps get updated because roads and rivers change course. I am a firm believer that curriculum needs to be examined and tweaked on a regular basis, but to discard acquired knowledge as "mere facts" is to deeply misunderstand curriculum design. Is there a kernel of truth in Schmidt's statement? Yes, I think there is more than a kernel in fact. What this means for us as educators is that curriculum design is more important now than ever because it is becoming more difficult to build a broad enough general schema.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Exposure vs. Retention

I believe that the words "learning" and "retention" are synonyms. For example, if I learn how to redirect a folder to a new server in April, then forget how to do it again in September, I can't really say I learned it, can I? I learned how to speak English, I learned my multiplication tables, I learned how to read. I can use the word learn because I retained that knowledge. These units of knowledge are permanently imprinted in my long-term memory.

So what do we call the phenomenon of being taught something that we understand and apply but fail to retain in the long-term? I usually call it "exposure." Much of what is taught in school isn't really learned. Students are exposed to certain skills and knowledge, but 5 or 10 years later can not remember it.

When it comes to learning music or a foreign language, even a little exposure supposedly enables people to learn more deeply later in life. This may be true in other disciplines as well. Students who are taught logic may forget they even heard the word syllogism, but they may have an unconscious understanding of how to construct a logical argument.

This brings up the question: is the goal of school exposure to a variety of skills and knowledge or is the goal deeper and lasting learning? Is our job as teachers about opening neural pathways to enable learning later in life or is it about having students graduate with a conscious understanding of specific systems, skills, and information?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Olde Education

The thing I remember most about reading Beowulf in high school is how bizarre the language seemed to me. It barely made sense when my teacher told me it was actually written in English. I never put much thought into the evolution of the English language until I was confronted with the snapshot of linguistic history that is Beowulf, but it fascinated me once my teacher explained it. She explained that Beowulf is written in Olde English and we now speak Modern English.

I learned that language isn’t static; it evolves in many ways for many reasons. Ironically enough, the same teachers that can explain this change in language remain entrenched in an antiquated educational model. Many of today’s lesson plans are not Modern Education, but Olde Education.
If you listen to the discussion about education reform closely, you’ll notice that the phrase “21st Century skills” gets thrown around quite a bit. This makes sense; after all we are living in the 21st century. However, it is always striking when I hear people use it in the future tense.

People talk about the skills students are “going to need” like the 21st century is still approaching. The reality is that we are over a decade into the 21st century. We shouldn’t be preparing for the upcoming influx of new technologies and cultural shifts because we can’t prepare for things that already happened. For the last decade, students around the world have experienced cultural shifts their teachers never experienced.

Students are connected to their friends 24 hours a day, regardless of their physical location. Students today consume massive amounts of digital content, remix it then share it with their friends. Mobile technology created an entire generation of amatuer photographers, film makers and writers.

Last summer I worked on a mini-documentary titled “Decade 2” that is intended to be a wake-up call to educators who haven’t upgraded their lesson designs to match these cultural paradigm shifts over the last ten years. The movie is basically the manifestation of the William Gibson quote “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same hypothetical future that many veteran educators envision way out in the distance is actually the very practical, ordinary, everyday existence for twenty-somethings as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

Decade 2 is a series of short clips mostly taken via webcam and shared from twenty-somethings across the United States describing their daily social media use, the pros and cons of tech saturated lifestyles and advice for educators. Many of the contributors to the movie are people I have never met in person but collaborating with them was shockingly easy. The ease with which we can find and connect with new people then share digital content can be startling.

If I tried to do this in 1991, the task would have been beyond impractical for me. Aside from the prohibitive cost of flying around the country to film people F2F, the film development and editing process would have taken months instead of days. It would be a long-shot to even find the people I found in the days before people had digital footprints on the web. Decade 2 is a movie made using the wiki model and it worked because to the contributors, digital collaborations are commonplace.

The world has changed a lot in twenty years and as educators we need to stop speaking to our students in Olde Education and start using a language they can understand.