Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taking education from information to knowledge

THIS article is the antidote to the stupid "Google is making us stupid" article I posted about yesterday. In the hierarchy of learning, we move thusly (mostly my definitions, blending some stuff I've picked up):

 1. Noise (undifferentiated stimulus). 2. Data (differentiated stimulus with understood measures). 3. Information (relationships between data). 4. Knowledge (how to use information usefully). 5. Wisdom (how to apply knowledge more usefully over time).

Schools used to be about teaching kids how to find and memorize information. Then they'd go to work and develop knowledge skills (and hopefully some wisdom). In a world where information seeking is much less frictional, we can either make the grotesque error of trying to add friction back into information finding ("Google is making us dumber") or we can move "up" one level in how and what we teach, seeking to impart knowledge -- the ability to *do useful and interesting things* -- to students rather than fill them up with information that is trivially obtained in most cases now.

I've said this for years: artists get it (it's one reason I love teaching at CCAD). You can't learn to draw, paint, sculpt, design, etc. by reading books about it. You have to DO THINGS to learn to do them. A lot of the new-ish pedagogy of entrepreneurship and leadership in business is built on understanding this ("fail early, fail often," etc.). In the arts and music, this is known as "practice." You don't pick up a guitar and expect that a knowledge of musical theory will make you a great player. You have to play for thousands of hours.

My brother John had a great book about the business of acting that he loaned me many years ago. Not the craft, but the biz; how to get an agent, when to join a union, etc. etc. At one point, the author says that there will be times when you'll be the most talented person at an audition, but you still won't get the gig. Because they need someone taller to match the romantic interest. Because they need someone who is less handsome or more quirky looking or can ride a motorcycle. His summation of this is profound:

"As children, we are rewarded for being 'good.' As adults, we are rewarded for being 'useful,' and nobody teaches us that transition."

Education needs to train people to be useful. And I don't mean in the "trade skills" kind of way. We need to train kids to be useful as thinkers, inventors, creators and cognizant citizens. We need them to understand not just how to learn, but how to learn to *do* things. How to move from being good information gatherers to knowledge hunters.

Articles about how Google is making us dumber are making us dumber

Read this article and then come back.

[rant on] I AM SO TIRED OF THESE "TECH IS MAKING US STOOPID" ARTICLES! The wrong-think in here is extraordinary. First there's this gem:

"The gap between a question crystallizing in your mind and an answer appearing at the top of your screen is shrinking all the time. As a consequence, our ability to ask questions is atrophying."

Is it? It is? How do you know this? Is there research that suggests that we're less able to ask questions? Is there a link you could share? Or did you not know how to ask Google the right question to find some research on the subject?

 And this fun bit...

"But knowledge doesn’t just fill the brain up; it makes it work better. To see what I mean, try memorizing the following string of fourteen digits in five seconds: 74830582894062. Hard, isn’t it? Virtually impossible. Now try memorizing this string of fourteen letters: "lucy in the sky with diamonds." This time, you barely needed a second. The contrast is so striking that it seems like a completely different problem, but fundamentally, it’s the same. The only difference is that one string of symbols triggers a set of associations with knowledge you have stored deep in your memory."

AAARGHHH!!! So much wrong! So very not! First of all, let's please not conflate "information" with "knowledge" or "memory." Three different things! And the lyrics to "Lucy in the Sky" were already in my head! ARRGGHHH! So I didn't need ANY TIME to memorize it. But even if it were, memorization is also not information or knowledge.

 The author closes with ye olde chestnut that humans should do what we're good at, and computers what they are. He says, "Wikipedia and Google are best treated as starting points rather than destinations." RIGHT. THEY ARE. ALMOST ALWAYS. Because the answer to my question (the information) is going to relate to one of two kinds of situations.

1) Casual, impact-free curiosity. This is the realm of IMDB and a lot of Wikipedia queries. "Who was that guy in 'Home Alone' with the shovel?" or "What was the name of Herod's wife?" These are questions for which the information itself is, generally, the desired end result. I'm not going to do anything with that information besides just know it. Maybe it's for something that will stick, maybe not. The only difference between doing this online vs. old school is speed and convenience.

2) Questions asked because you will be using them to accomplish something. For example, "Recipe for gluten-free birthday cake," "Directions to Pittsburgh from Columbus," "How to get grease out of a tie," "Where to shop for ladders," "What should I weigh?" etc. etc. In each case, the information (if used) will be part of a series of activities that will, together, generate knowledge. Because knowledge is information in a useful format. For example, if I get a good recipe and don't make the cake, I have not increased my knowledge. I cannot tell you if it is truly a good, gluten-free cake. Nor if it's a cake at all. Nor how hard to bake, how expensive, how nice it smells. Once I bake it, though, I have knowledge of the value of the recipe.

And that's a good way to understand the difference between what Google can do for you and what it can't. Google can find recipes. Only you can bake a cake. Google can give you some information (some good, some better, some awful, some wrong). Only you can turn it into knowledge.
Here's what I resent about articles like this, however. The conflation of these very different mental tasks absolutely ignores the cost (in time and money) of acquiring information in the pursuit of knowledge. Now, I'm not talking about "question 1" type stuff above. If you want to be an expert on a certain type of information, memorization and long-form research will be key. If you want to lecture on a topic, you need to know it in your own widdle haid. But if I don't know that there are (for example) freeware alternatives to Photoshop, I might spend a LOT of time and money saving up for Photoshop, only to find that it doesn't help me. The quick answer to the question, "Are there free alternatives to Photoshop" will free up a lot of my resources to actually DO THE KNOWLEDGE GATHERING THING (image editing) that I'm interested in.

Yes. There are types of thinking that we should all pursue. Yes. Curiosity is important. Yes. Deep, frustrating, interesting problems require that you practice doing deep, frustrating, interesting research. But helping me find the nearest gas station or the expected weather in Chicago is not going to atrophy my creativity or invention.

FWIW, they said the same stuff about teaching "regular people" to read back when the printing press came out. Since farmers and peasants etc. have no need for school learnin', why would they waste their time on books? I translate this sentiment into modern times by asking, "Since many working people's jobs don't require deep knowledge of arcane details and trivia, why should they have access to a tool that allows them 'easy' answers they don't know how to earn on their own? They should have to be scientists and inventors to know that stuff."

In closing, if you think you can learn how to play an instrument, drive a car, have better sex, etc. from the Internet, you're already dumb without Google. To learn things, you have to do things. All Google, Wikipedia, IMDB et al do is remove some of the friction from gathering the necessary parts to START learning. [/rant]

PS: I've NEVER been any good at memorization and I've never had a bit of trouble (either pre- or post-internet) doing creative, layered, long-form thinking. The two are categorically different activities IMHO.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Safe Words: A Zombie Sonnet

Deep down inside, we knew we were bad.
All of us. Everywhere. Everyone had
a cellular knowledge of what we had done
to all of our victims. And now we have come

to a drought of fresh blood. To a desert of flesh
where the ground is a stone, where the wind just a breath
of enmity, apathy, memory, dawn.
Alone with our horror. Our hunger now gone

to sleep with its victims, now marrow and hair.
The scent of them absent. No trace of them where
there once was a bike path, a playground, a mall.
We wait for a sign. We'll wait here while all

of the stars flicker out. Until time itself ends.
To reunite, finally, for dinner with friends.