I have a friend who likes to participate in a weekly trivia contest at a pub. I've gone with her a couple of times. I've enjoyed it and I've been a valuable addition to the team because I have, over the past 50 years, accumulated a lot of information. I'm interested in a lot of different things and so I have learned about a lot of different things, and I read a lot and talk to people, and information tends to stick to me. As a result I kinda have encyclopedic knowledge. Or, at least, I once did. Friends and family used to call me and ask questions with confidence that I would have the answers - and I usually did.
They don't call me so much anymore. Now people just Google anything they want to know. In a wired world where information is readily accessible, where I can get the facts about anything as soon as I need it, where I can reap the benefits of just-in-time education, having the facts is of no value. That huge body of knowledge that I worked so hard to amass? Worthless. But I still have something that does have value. The value is in having a context in which those facts have meaning.
I'll tell three stories that will illustrate and illuminate what I mean.
- I used to wonder things or try to remember things and I would mutter out loud something like "What was the name of the actor in that movie?" My daughter, hearing the question, would respond "Tsk. Google it." I was grateful for the reminder that Google is there to satisfy my every idle curiosity, but I could really do without the little whipcrack "Tsk" that came first. Eventually she trained me to not mutter the question out loud and to go straight to the internet with every little question.
- She is really good with that. She didn't need any training. We were riding in the car and I was telling her about this scooter that I wanted, an Aprilia Scarabeo 200. I was telling her that it's kinda funky looking, that it doesn't look like a Vespa, but that I had not only gotten used to the looks, but had come to really like them. Within moments she says "Wow. Yeah, I see what you mean, but I think it looks cool." In the few seconds that we had been talking she used her phone to find an image of the scooter and was looking at it. While we were driving in the car. In just seconds. And it was, for her, the natural thing to do. She did it without hesitation or any moment when it had not yet occurred to her to look online for the information. It was a perspective shifting moment for me.
- I was helping my daughter with her math homework and it was some Geometry that had to do with triangles. There were these three different ways to find the center of a triangle and three different kinds of centers. I took geometry over thirty years ago as a high school freshman. I remember some things from the class, but the three methods for finding the center of a triangle was not among them. So I went to Google and got my just-in-time education on the three methods and how they worked. My daughter also reviewed the three methods as I learned about them. Then we turned to the specific questions in her geometry homework. They were things like: Side AB is 4 meters long. Angle CAB is 30 degrees. What is the length of Side CB? I could answer them, but she could not. We both had the same information, but I also had a context in which that information had meaning. I didn't just know the information; I also knew how to use it. I knew how to use what I knew about the triangles, and what I knew about the relationships between the measures, to solve for the unknowns about the triangles.
What will be of value will be the ability to put those facts in a meaningful context. This does, of course, require some resident factual knowledge, but, more than that, it requires the ability - as much a skill as a talent - to aggregate facts, to weave them into a coherent network of meaning. This is not any great or novel discovery. This is a well-known and commonly accepted idea, but, ironicly, people haven't realized its meaning. For one thing, it means that the focus and aim of education has to shift. There is little value in teaching facts or getting students to learn facts. Education should no longer be about filling heads with facts (if it ever was).
So how is this well-known and commonly accepted idea reflected in our schools? How are our schools preparing students for college, career, and life in the 21st century when the value isn't in the facts but in the context? Where are students being taught to think about the facts and their relationship with other facts?
Also, I need to wonder if this isn't a sort of elitist question. Isn't there still a digital divide with technology haves on one side and technology have-nots on the other? Or do we live in a world in which a smart phone is within everyone's reach, kids are digital natives, and the technology have-nots are mostly those over 60?