What is education in the Age of Information?

It used to be that the key to being a smart kid in school was to memorize everything. But now that we have the Internet, memorizing is not such a useful skill. On the other hand, the ability to search is an incredibly useful skill. But what does that skill look like for homeschoolers?

Craft questions instead of answers.
Search is knowing what questions to ask and the most valuable education is learning how to ask good questions. Which upends school, since grades focus on your answers and give you all the questions. But answers are a commodity.

Take writing school papers, for example. It’s an old fashioned skill in the Information Age.  Teachers ask students to write papers to ensure the students understood the subject matter teachers are feeding students. But all papers have already been written, and we can find them online.

Recognize commodified knowledge.
A top student would be good at finding a paper someone has already written on the topic. A student with exceptional search skills would find reviews of writing services for students, find the best one, and not bother writing the paper themselves. Because no one gets paid in adult life to write things that have already been written somewhere else online.

I was a history major in college and the number of dates swimming in my head is astounding. I got A’s in high school history for memorizing: 1066, 1509, 1688, 1831, 1914. But I benefit from knowing how to label commodified knowledge and move beyond it, rather than lamenting the fact that no one learns those dates anymore.

The faster kids can recognize knowledge everyone has access to, the faster they can learn to focus on the insights they can provide that are unique to them. (Another good reason to help kids understand personality type—it shows them what is unique about their brand of information synthesis!)

Span subject demarcations.
In a poll that asked CEOs what the most valuable workplace skill would be in the near future, a common refrain was that people need the ability to span boundaries. The picture in this post is wallpaper called Brooklyn Toile. It’s Mike Diamond (of the Beastie Boys) giving us a new take on old-fashioned French toile.

What makes the wallpaper exciting is it bridges two different aesthetics. Which is, of course, another way to talk about information synthesis. While schools teach kids to think in terms of subjects – separate ways of thinking – the Internet creates a commodification of subject-based information.

The Internet is a sorting system for everything we know, and it sorts based on subject. What we need humans for is to think in terms of multiple sorting mechanisms at a time. That is, what is the information at the intersection of subject matter?

The most effective knowledge workers are people who are able to stop thinking in terms of subjects, which is ironic since the promise of school is that if you get good grades (by subject matter), then you’ll get a good job in adult life. So maybe the most promising candidates for the adult work world are students who refuse to be tied down by homework and get bad grades.

(An editorial aside about the Beastie Boys. Wait. Can there be an editorial aside if the editor is also the writer? I wanted to have italics and I knew I needed it to be something important to make italics. And editorial aside sounded good.

What I want to say is I love the wallpaper so much, so I got t to thinking about how their music is one of my first experiences of how information blends. I remember the joy I felt knowing they grew up as religious Jews in Brooklyn and then started rapping, and then developed their own goofy, white-boy rhythms and melodies. A good soundtrack for this post would be my favorite Beastie Boys song: She’s Crafty.

But now that you’ve gotten to the end of the post, you’ll have nothing to read while you’re listening. So check out this article in Fast Company about how listening to music at home leads to higher productivity, better attitudes toward chores, and – drumroll — more sex. That Beastie Boys song is sounding better already, isn’t it?)




10 replies
  1. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Learning how to ask good questions includes learning humility. It’s realizing that the more you learn, the more there is to learn and what you didn’t originally know. That is, if you’re being totally honest with yourself. The old saying applies here – “You don’t know what you don’t know”. Asking good questions is a building process. Some people in that process get further along than others for various reasons which include resilience and adaptability.
    I think memorizing is important to certain extents. It’s important to know certain facts exist and where you came across them so you can retrieve them. Everyone is memorizing things to the extent they need and use them. Ideally, it’s being done to their benefit in the most effective way. Knowing what to memorize can be very beneficial for various reasons including taking the SAT. My freshman year of college, one of my professors allowed us to bring into the final exam one letter size piece of paper with anything we had written on it (formulas, etc.). It had to be hand-written in our own writing. By the time I had composed my sheet of information filled out on both sides, I had memorized the sheet and rarely referred to it during the test. I think an open book test would have been harder because I wouldn’t have spent as much time on the material (and preparing the sheet) prior to the test.
    I like the term boundary spanning. I didn’t know that’s what it’s named even though we all do it to different degrees and times. I would think project-based learning would encourage it more than subject-based learning.
    As for the Internet, it’s a great tool and it is multi-dimensional. However, as with all tools, it does have its limitations, some of which are mentioned in this post. So, it’s critical to know what those limitations are (including the search engines) and proceed accordingly.

  2. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    “Because no one gets paid in adult life to write things that have already been written somewhere else online.”–Maybe things will change in the future, but I have to tell you that lawyers get paid to write what has already been written.

  3. Joy
    Joy says:

    I like to think that writing isn’t just about saying something novel, especially in grade school. It’s a practice toward becoming a better writer/thinker/orator who can use words to express oneself most accurately and interestingly. In other words, not about the end product but about the process.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, first of all, not everyone sorts their thinking out by writing. Only some types of people do. But more than that, I think this is a BS line of reasoning that teachers give students to get them to write stupid papers.

      No one gets paid to write to sort out their thoughts. We call that writing a diary or journal and it’s really really boring to read other peoples’ writing in that format.

      So I think teachers tell kids they need to learn to “write well” because writing is good in and of itself. But actually having good ideas is what’s good. Not being able to write well about them.

      And this is a great time to tell you that many many scientists in the US speak English as a second language and have to have someone else write their papers. This is a great example of how the ideas are way way more important than being able to write about them.


      • Bostonian
        Bostonian says:

        I agree that writing well isn’t necessary for everybody, and that only some types of people sort their thinking out by writing. Most people are going to end up in jobs that require no writing. The most numerous jobs in America are in food service and retail; they require no writing (and pay very low wages).

        People who want to have the sort of careers that require writing would do well to put in the hours necessary to develop the craft. It would be a great disservice to them, as their parents, to ignore that. I don’t think we can be so sure they won’t need writing skills, and it takes some time to develop them.

        I think an analogous argument can be made about foreign language fluency. Most Americans have absolutely no need for it. They will never travel abroad or own a passport, and they will never have a conversation with someone who doesn’t speak English or see a book in a foreign language. But that – or the fact that you can look up words on your iPhone – doesn’t mean it’s useless or obsolete for our kids to learn foreign languages.

        In my case, two things that made it possible for me to have a successful and remunerative career were my foreign language fluency and my writing ability. The engineers couldn’t do my job, which is why I was hired.

        I am perfectly happy to see other people’s children growing up half-literate and ignorant of all languages but English. That just means there’s more work for mine.

      • Violet
        Violet says:

        I know many many scientists in US with English as second language and horrible accents when they lecture in class. But everyone of them are very particular about their papers regarding what they write and how they write. Most of them own multiple style and grammar books. Poor writers with great data and great ideas will never get past their PhD (if that). One can hire someone to review and rewrite their PhD dissertation but won’t be able to produce good publication record if writing is outsourced (that too on post-doc salaries).

        May be you have some examples you could share about which tenured professor or practicing scientist in US could get away without having good writing skills when half of the good research is how well you present the results and connect your ideas to previous research.

  4. Deidre
    Deidre says:

    Sorry I just have to say this! I am not your “doom and gloom” kind of person, but… rely on the Internet for everything? What if for some reason, there is no Internet tomorrow?

  5. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I met with a friend on Friday and we were talking about the blog and how I don’t comment anymore.

    She used to make fun of my old giant-screen phone. Now that I have a regular sized phone is so annoying to type anything. But here I am.

    My focus in everything I do with my kids and the parents in my job is ask a million questions. It works best to say “how do you think your sister feels if you shout at her?” Than to try to force information in the scene.

    A few months back I met with a semi friend who is a doctor and teacher at a local university. The topic of conversation was epidemiology in today’s century and the food we eat. He showed me graphs of all the countries with lesser instances of diseases that plague us. My immediate reaction was to look for commonalities. Normally I landed on cultural values that are similar because that’s what I think about often.

    It made me happy. I feel like I have finally made the transition and I began thinking like an unschooler more and more until it became natural.

    It permeates every aspect of my life now.

    My questions are better and different and there’s a lot of “what happens if?….” “Well let’s just try and investigate and figure it out on the way.”

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