Information Overload and Education

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In “Information Overload, Then and Now” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 November 2010), Ann Blair comments on the history and future of information overload. We all feel it from time to time. My undergraduate experience took this problem to new levels as I navigated from English literature to world history to engineering drawing to physics to chemistry and to calculus every week. It was like drinking from the proverbial firehose.

Prof. Blair (Harvard University, History) has put this topic into historical perspective. The article is interesting and undoubtedly is intended to interest people in reading the book. However, I was struck by the last sentence.

Many of our technologies will no doubt rapidly seem obsolete, but, we can hope, not human attention and judgment, which should continue to be the central components of thoughtful information management.

I received two messages from this sentence. She points out that human judgment will not soon be supplanted by computers. I concur. For me, she implies much more, that we must ensure that students learn good thinking skills. Technology can both help and hurt this process. Of course, these two faces of technology have been around at least since spears could help obtain food and hurt other people.

Consider for a moment the current strong and increasing emphasis on student testing. We’re not just evaluating students to help them learn better. We’re pigeonholing them and evaluating their teachers and schools to determine whether to take punitive measures or mete out rewards.

People, including students, teachers, and administrators, respond to how they’re measured, evaluated, and rewarded – or punished.

It should come as no surprise that we are creating cadres of memorizers who seek the fastest and easiest path to success. Someday, in the future, all students will be evaluated while working interactively on computer-based systems. If the evaluation systems are well constructed, then thinking will be rewarded and the current mess will become a past anomaly. Today is another matter.

It’s possible to create paper-based, machine-scored tests that emphasize thinking over memory, but it’s not easy nor is it cheap. Yet, that’s exactly what we must promote today because the future looms over us like storm clouds that continue to darken as we do too little.

Two traditional K-12 subjects provide particularly apt opportunities for teaching good thinking skills: history and science. Few of these classes do so and fewer do it well. Somehow, our schools have to break away from the “names and dates” history classes and the “scientific facts” science classes and move to using the opportunities to understand our past and to understand our world and universe in such a way as to promote skeptical, critical, and scientific thinking skills.

I’m not saying that the sky is falling – yet. I am saying that we’re moving in the wrong direction, that Arne Duncan’s Education Department has not grappled with this issue effectively and that most school system also ignore it.

Technology has the hope of reversing this trend. Instead of seeing many wonderful ways to use technology to promote thinking, I see interactive white boards and lots of memorization and visualization aids. The former tend to retain the teacher-centric model of classrooms. The latter are not much better than the 20th century film loops and tests that are mere drills. Admittedly, they’re glitzier.

I’d like to see examples of new technological ideas that encourage thinking skills over memorization. Incidentally, I’d rather not see these skills described as “21st century thinking skills” because we have good documentation that they’ve been in use for at least 2,500 years and can imply a much longer lineage. People’s brains haven’t changed in the last 100,000 years, but what we put in them has.

2 Responses

  1. Back when the standards movement was just starting, I had good friends in the Colorado Department of Education. I was then on the Colorado Goals 2000 task force, which put me right in the heart of the development of standards. The people who were leading the movement, the people who were designing the standards with an eye to the assessments to come, were people who would even then be fully in agreement with Harry’s analysis. Their vision was powerful.

    But their vision was hijacked.

    Politicians took the process out of the hands of informed educators and put in place the system we have today. I well remember the resignation letter of one of those educators, a beautifully-written and poignant reflection on what could have otherwise happened.

    Budgets have a lot to do with it, though. Maryland originally had a wonderful idea for state assessments, but the assessment process turned out to be, as Harry said, too expensive, and they had to abandon these forward-thinking assessments as a result.

    There is hope, though. In my past work I had to look at the state standards of all 50 states, and there are some that are actually models of what Harry is looking for, even in science.The opposite is also true. The interesting thing will be to see who is ultimately victorious.

  2. There are some great models for a new kind of assessment, at least in science. I was recently treated to a lecture by Harvard Physicist Dr. Eric Mazur on the concepts of interactive teaching and the use of more dynamic assessment, a term I believe has origins in the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. I was inspired by his creative ways of testing mental models over rote knowledge and in his use of teaching via “conceptual” questions and discussions that require students to exercise those “skeptical, critical, and scientific thinking skills” our species brains first developed as early hominids.

    I know many who would love to make this teaching and assessment transition faster, but are apparently locked into the “hijacked” version of the vision as John put it, and the punitive effects associated with current testing methods. There is a paper from 2008 that does a fairly good job of describing at least some of the issues around assessment 2.0 written by Bobby Elliott of the UK.

    I was also present in Washington at the SETDA conference when Arne Duncan announced the new Educational Technology Plan last month, and apparently two different state groups are now working on Assessment 2.0 type tests, as they are being called, that can be shared by all states. Arne Duncan’s comments, captured from an earlier announcement of the next generation assessments are on-line if you have not read them.

    So it seems there is at least some level of grappling going on at the federal level towards the issues of student testing and evaluating them in better and more formative ways. Hopefully there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the pigeonholing and the ultimate victor will be the students, as it should be.

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