Sunday, January 03, 2010

Teachers, Meaningful Connections, & Mindful Information Consumption

Clay Burell has been on a writing binge over the holiday -- and there have been long conversations in the comments of several posts, which, as Clay put it, have been the equivalent of college-level credit in terms of professional development. NB: Some of my contributions are re-formatted and expanded below.

First of all, see the original Beyond School blog posts (among others):
Clay expressed his fear that we are producing barbarians with laptops and challenged people to to provide good examples of learning that effectively enhanced content and the development of important skills -- and many did. (Check out the responses of Roberto Greco, Monika Hardy, Neil Stephenson, Hellen Harding, et al.)

I cited Michael Wesch's philosophy of teaching outlined in a video in 2008 as my guiding light.

In summary, to create students who make meaningful connections we need to
  • find a grand narrative and provide context and relevance (i.e., semantic meaning);
  • create a learning environment that values and leverages learners themselves (i.e., personal meaning); and
  • do both in a way that realizes and leverages the existing media environment
Technology isn’t an end in itself -- it’s about leverage in the service of meaningful connections. So if it doesn't enhance the learning in the classroom and it's not authentic participation in the existing media environment (read: busywork), you shouldn't feel obliged to use it.

Cliff Stoll is someone who comes down squarely against computers in the classroom. See his 1999 book, High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian -- as well as his Feb. 2006 TED talk (which provides an excellent preview of how he would perform as a teacher in a classroom).

(And if you want an example of what it means to be a ruthless and natural inquirer, read his 1989 book The Cuckoo's Egg: tracking a spy through the maze of computer espionage .)

Here he is talking about computers in classrooms -- from an interview in 2000:

Stoll: The one thing that computers do extraordinarily well is bring information to kids. Computers give kids access to vast amounts of information.

EW: Don't computers have a place in the classroom, then, if merely as a source of information?

Stoll: Is a lack of information a problem in schools? I've never once had a teacher say to me "I don't have enough information." Teachers say they don't have enough time. The problem in classrooms is not a lack of information. It's too much information. ......

: ... The problem is that the use of computers subtracts from the student-to-teacher contact hours. It directs attention away from the student-teacher relationship and directs it toward the student-computer relationship. It teaches students to focus on getting information rather than on exploring and creating. Which is more interactive -- a student and a teacher or a student and a computer? ...

Re the love inherent in classroom teaching and the importance of time with a teacher (technology aside), I can't help but re-recommend a commencement address by Margaret Edson, teacher and playwright. There's a link in this blog post (skip the first 3 min of her talk and get to the heart of it).

Umberto Eco in this interview also brings up the problem of too much information, but sees the teacher (in the role of master to apprentices) as instrumental in dealing with it.
Eco: ... These [Google] lists can be dangerous -- not for old people like me, who have acquired their knowledge in another way, but for young people, for whom Google is a tragedy. Schools ought to teach the high art of how to be discriminating.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that teachers should instruct students on the difference between good and bad? If so, how should they do that?

Eco: Education should return to the way it was in the workshops of the Renaissance. There, the masters may not necessarily have been able to explain to their students why a painting was good in theoretical terms, but they did so in more practical ways. Look, this is what your finger can look like, and this is what it has to look like. Look, this is a good mixing of colors. The same approach should be used in school when dealing with the Internet. The teacher should say: "Choose any old subject, whether it be German history or the life of ants. Search 25 different Web pages and, by comparing them, try to figure out which one has good information." If 10 pages describe the same thing, it can be a sign that the information printed there is correct. But it can also be a sign that some sites merely copied the others' mistakes.
Last year Clay Shirky pointed out It's Not Information Overload, It's Filter Failure.

In that light, Umberto Eco is proposing teachers as human filters** for disciplinary knowledge and practices, teaching students to discriminate.

Frank Schirrmacher recognizes this same need to question what we're consuming in the way of information.

He talks about humans as ''informavores" in this video/transcript: Edge In Frankfurt: THE AGE OF THE INFORMAVORE— A Talk with Frank Schirrmacher.

I think it's very interesting, the concept — again, Daniel Dennett and others said it — the concept of the informavores, the human being as somebody eating information. So you can, in a way, see that the Internet and that the information overload we are faced with at this very moment has a lot to do with food chains, has a lot to do with food you take or not to take, with food which has many calories and doesn't do you any good, and with food that is very healthy and is good for you. ....
As we know, information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know — this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus — when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations. And so what interests me is that we are, because we have the Internet, now entering a phase where Darwinian structures, where Darwinian dynamics, Darwinian selection, apparently attacks ideas themselves: what to remember, what not to remember, which idea is stronger, which idea is weaker.
It's the question: what is important, what is not important, what is important to know? Is this information important? Can we still decide what is important? And it starts with this absolutely normal, everyday news.
Having introduced the metaphor of information as food, I can't help but end with a link to one of the essays David Brooks gave a 2009 Sidney (best essay) award to:

Is Food the New Sex? - Mary Eberhardt - Hoover Institution - Policy Review
Try reading it, substituting the word "information" for "food" or "sex"....
These disciplines imposed historically on access to food and sex now raise a question that has not come up before, probably because it was not even possible to imagine it until the lifetimes of the people reading this: What happens when, for the first time in history — at least in theory, and at least in the advanced nations — adult human beings are more or less free to have all the sex and food they want?
This question opens the door to a real paradox. For given how closely connected the two appetites appear to be, it would be natural to expect that people would do the same kinds of things with both appetites — that they would pursue both with equal ardor when finally allowed to do so, for example, or with equal abandon for consequence; or conversely, with similar degrees of discipline in the consumption of each.
In fact, though, evidence from the advanced West suggests that nearly the opposite seems to be true. The answer appears to be that when many people are faced with these possibilities for the very first time, they end up doing very different things — things we might signal by shorthand as mindful eating, and mindless sex. This essay is both an exploration of that curious dynamic, and a speculation about what is driving it.
[bold added]

Here we are, for the first time in history with all the information we want. It's the "Informavore's Dilemma" ***. Now we just need to develop the discipline for mindful information consumption.

** Social bookmarking is a form of discriminating filtering and Roberto Greco, with over 17,500 bookmarks on Delicious is one of my richest human filters for reading material. As a librarian, I'm impressed with both his descriptions and his tags.

*** I thought I was being clever vis-a-vis Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma", but Google tells me used it first...

p.s. Wherever I've used the word "teacher", I obviously include "librarians".

Image of Umberto Eco via giveawayboy on Flickr / Image of bento box via Cowism / Image of Google log via the Telegraph UK


  1. Congratulations. Your blog has been nominated for our Library Blog Awards. In fact, your blog was suggested more than once and is a personal favorite of mine (wish you wrote more). We're in the process of assembling information about all those nominated and will be sending a short questionaire, including the categories of awards and the judges involved. Would you please send me your email address so that I can send you the questionnaire? If your email is on your blog, I couldn't locate it.

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    Peter W Tobey

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