On Information

Today I’m going to argue against myself. On one hand, I think that the information revolution is largely irrelevant and uninteresting for education. On the other, I will champion the notion that all students need to internalize a significant amount of information. Hopefully I can make both cases without giving myself a black eye. Let’s start with the alleged information revolution and 21st century education. I won’t pick on anyone in particular; I will try to fairly represent a widely-help, often repeated cluster of viewpoints. If the ubiquity of internet-enabled devices such as phones and computers indicates anything, it indicates that enormous amounts of information is available to us all day, every day. News of the world, entertainment gossip, scholarly articles, educational applications and more are now everywhere and always available. Given that education deals with information, surely this is a game-changer (to use an already-tired metaphor) for education. Mmm. Maybe not. Back in the day, we had to walk to the library and use the encyclopedia to look up, say, the population of Brazil. What’s more, the data was usually several years old, so if we wanted up to date data, we had to look in the yearbooks. Today, you just type your question into the search engine and you have the data you want in seconds. In a few minutes, we could all come up with dozens of similar information searches that the internet have brought to our fingertips. To all of these, we do have to ask a simple question: so what? Ask yourself why a student would need to know the population of Brazil. By itself, it’s a pretty unimportant fact. Perhaps the point is to compare Brazil’s population to that of some other country. IN that case, having the latest numbers don’t matter as the proportions are likely unchanged. Perhaps the point is to learn something about population distribution in Brazil. Again, provided the numbers aren’t too far out of date, it doesn’t matter if you have the most recent census, or the second or third most recent for that matter. Maybe the point is to teach the student how to find the information in a reputable source. Seems pretty likely to me. But again, what’s the good of the information revolution now? I could create other examples, but by now you probably get the point. The information itself is usually not the point of the educational task. Students need the information to make inferences, or comparisons, or as exercises to develop information-informed analysis. In almost every case, what’s educationally interesting or important is not the fact, but the use to which the fact is put. Students need to learn to evaluate, manipulate and analyze; the facts are just simple objects on the way of this great journey. Don’t get me wrong. I like having access to current, accurate data. I use it all the time. But in my classroom, the data is almost never the most important part of the lesson or activity. My job it teach students how to think about and with data; once they’re beyond my class, they’ll need the thinking skills they learned far more than they’ll need the information they found. And now the other side. While there is a great deal of hype about the new information age—most of it, by the way, coming from outside of the education community—there is a wave of educators who are downplaying the importance of information altogether. They have taken the ideas above and generalized them beyond their applicability. The line of thinking goes like this. If (as argued above) information is always at our fingertips, and if the real business of education is not the recollection of facts but the evaluation, manipulation and analysis of information, then let’s stop teaching facts altogether. Calculators are better at arithmetic than humans ever could be, we’ve got spell checkers and all the online information we could ever want. Let’s just give kids access to all that data and spend our time teaching them the deeper skills of evaluation, manipulation and analysis. Uh oh. Things aren’t quite as simple as that. Let’s imagine that you were a student and that I wished to explore the current crisis in Crimea. If you’re a typical North American, you probably have only a very vague notion of where this is taking place. A bit of online searching might give you a map like this. I’m not sure how much this helps. But let’s pretend that it does. Now you can begin to see that first of all Crimea is a peninsula in the Black Sea (know where that is?) and that it’s physically contiguous with Ukraine and it’s very close to Russia. This is a good start. Perhaps a second map will give a better picture. This changes things a bit. Suddenly Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Georgia enter the picture. For you to begin understanding what’s physically going on, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time glancing back and forth from your work to your map. Eventually, though, you will begin to memorize the relative locations of these places and your task will be lighter. If you keep at it long enough, you’ll hardly need the map at all. Where am I going with this? Our short-term memory can hold very little, maybe 6-8 small pieces of information. If we are trying to make sense of a situation, we need to constantly work and rework what we’re holding in short-term memory. In the case of geography, if you know nothing of Black Sea geography, you’re going to have to hold the places in short-term memory, and you’ll quickly realize you’ve got nothing left to work on analysis of the political situation. You have to let go of something to move forward. If, however, you have the geographic information in your long-term memory, short-term is fully available for the work you are doing. The same argument goes for arithmetic, science, reading, and well, everything else we try to learn. If you have to struggle to balance the simple information that underwrites all of our deeper thinking, then you will not be able to direct your mental energy on the target. It really is that simple. Without basic number facts, deeper thinking about arithmetic is impossible; without basic science, analysis of larger concepts is at best a dream, and so on. This points to a problem, but only to a partial solution. If we want students to be able to move deeply into information, they need to have some of the basics memorized. The problem is that no one has any good notion of what needs to be memorized—lots of people have opinions, but the empirical research is lacking. For some things such as arithmetic, it’s pretty safe to say that all students who are capable of memorizing all single-digit number facts should do so (e.g. multiply up to 9×9 by rote). Further, if possible, every student should be able to multiply an arbitrary 2-digit number by a 1-digit number in their heads. After that, all bets are off. Maybe it’s really helpful to be able to do more instantly; maybe not. It’s probably a very good idea for high school students to memorize chunks of the periodic table. Most successful students do this just by using it a lot; this is an educational bonus. And in the case of geography, some value judgments are going to have to be made. Surely students should internalize the basic geography of their home areas and their home countries. After that, it’s a matter of deciding what’s important. Very few people today have a great vision of the boundaries all around the globe; but many have internalized significant portions of it. So where are we after all this? I guess the task for educators is to find the Goldilocks zone for information. Not too much; not too little. Just right.

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One thought on “On Information

  1. Very interesting post, John. If one of the ways we make sense of the world is pattern recognition, then it helps to have a memorized store of patterns to recognize. In arithmetic, for example, memorizing the perfect squares, the triangular numbers, and the primes up to a certain boundary, gives a head start with recognizing and appreciating other patterns that one can encounter in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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