Sunday, January 9, 2011

Knowledge and Information in the 21st Century

There is a lot of talk about the 21st Century learner. I often use the phrase when talking with parents, knowing that it conjures up certain images and sometimes even fear. And there is also a lot of hype about what role technology can play in the role of education. And again, a lot of fear. The Social Life of Information is an attempt to clear some of the myths about the information age and to offer alternative ways of thinking about the future, as well as the future of education. Authors Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown write wonderfully on knowledge, and how it turns
attention toward knowers, which is a good thing for those who believe people still have a purpose in the learning process. They write, "increasingly, as the abundance of information overwhelms us all, we need not simply more information, but people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of it."

So, while the modern world often appears increasingly impersonal, in those areas where knowledge really counts, people count more than ever. The authors give a wonderful example of this need for learning to take place in a social context when they describe how students learn vocabulary. They draw their research by two educational psychologists who compared learning words in the everyday practice of conversation with trying to learn vocabulary from dictionaries. In the daily, social example, they found that learning "is startlingly fast and successful. By listening, talking, and reading, the average 17-year-old has learned vocabulary at a rate of 5,000 words per year(13 per day) for over 16 years. The children know both what these
words mean and how to use them."

By contrast, the researchers found that learning words from abstract definitions and sentences from dictionaries "is far slower and far less successful. Working this way, the children in the study acquired between 100 and 200 words per year. Moreover, much of what they learned turned out to be almost useless in practice. Despite their best efforts, looking up relate, careful, remedy and stir up in a dictionary led to sentences such as, "Me and my parents correlate, because without them I wouldn't be
here"; "I was meticulous about falling off the cliff"; "The redress for getting sick is staying in bed"; and "Mrs. Morrow stimulated the soup."

Most of us in education have seen this - the eager student with all the right information but none of the practical knowledge that make things work, in a lab, on a project or in a debate. Information is one thing. As most good teachers know, knowledge is something far more complex.

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