Since about the year 2000, our relationship to information has passed a watershed, separating all of prior human history from our current era.
When I was a student some decades ago, I was taught to write a research paper by going to the library and scouring books until I had enough information to warrant a paper-length treatment of the topic at hand. In other words, if I were, say, to write a short paper about Saturn, I would pull relevant books off the shelves until I felt I could say something cogent and informed about the ringed planet for the span of ten pages. In effect, I was still being trained in the skills necessary for success in an information scarcity civilization; I was still culling from disparate sources to reach a critical mass.
Fast forward to today’s student, who can access, with the push of a few buttons, many thousands of sources, all of them instantly searchable. Information “hunting and gathering” is as irrelevant to this student as learning to use a cuneiform stylus would have been to me. Today’s student has a vastly different relationship to information and consequently needs a new set of skills to cope and to succeed.
As I wrote over ten years ago, for a student in the 21st century, information is ubiquitous in multiple dimensions – including spatial, temporal, quantitative, and connective. Spatial, because the entire digital world can be accessed literally from virtually anywhere the student happens to be with a device; temporal, because it can be accessed with near instantaneity and is searchable in real time; quantitative, because the digital world is increasingly coterminal with the entirety of human knowledge and culture; connective, because students can share information or crowd source challenges instantly with anyone in the world at any time.
Students no longer need to know how to find information in books or other discrete data sources as their primary form of research and learning. So why do we persist in teaching them how to cope with the information delivery systems of last century?
Our students would be much better served by training them in the skills they need to navigate Big Data. Today, no one can know all of the information that is available; content is overwhelming but also searchable and readily accessible, so the value of knowing facts diminishes. The competitive value of knowledge in your head is that you are more likely to see connections between superficially unrelated topics.
The first businessperson to see the potential of RFID technology for just-in-time manufacturing assuredly had a genius for making such connections.
This is a shift, though, from a competitive advantage due to more data, per se, toward a competitive advantage due to interdisciplinary connectivity that only requires familiarity, not expertise, with other fields.
When a student types in “Saturn” and is presented with thousands of potential information sources, we need to teach that student how to best delineate optimal sources and key patterns in the data for a meaningful narrative to emerge. Students should also be taught how to distill the vast array of data available for a given task into a cogent and accessibly communicated info-graphic that summarizes the results of her or his work for others. Moreover, students need to learn how to present those results in a clear and compelling 10-15 minute spoken presentation; every student in the 21st century should be trained to give a TED Talk on any topic on which they have become knowledgeable.
Seeing patterns; making sense; communicating. These are perhaps the most salient skills to inculcate in our students in this age of Big Data.
These are certainly not entirely new skills, but they take on far greater centrality today.
So how are schools getting information wrong? Too often, we’re still teaching our students to be 18th- and 19th-century scholars; we’re teaching students to gather small amounts of information from discrete sources and provide a summary to the teacher once enough data points have been found.
What we instead need to teach students is to be intelligent consumers of information. In his book, “Big Data,” Bernard Marr notes that most information fed to the internet now comes from other devices, not people. “Hunting and gathering” information is rapidly diminishing as a principally or meaningfully human endeavor.
Rather, what we need to teach with renewed vigor is pattern recognition in large, often unwieldy, data sets; how to make sense of those patterns; and how best to communicate that insight. Making sense of patterns also calls upon uniquely human creative ingenuity to innovate connections between apparently disparate topics to effect breakthroughs across disciplines and sources.
Teaching students to be innovative users of combined analytics would result in profoundly different classrooms, more engaged and creative students, and more successful outcomes on almost every metric of success that matters.
Jim Tracy is Head of School at Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI