Monday, March 14, 2011

The Curse of Too Much Knowledge--Version 2.0

            As educator, institutional leader, and occasional workshop presenter, I try to remain acutely aware of the curse of too much knowledge. That is when you know a topic well enough that you forget your audience may remain below a certain assumed baseline of familiarity and understanding. For example, let’s pretend that I’m giving a lesson on economics. To illustrate a certain concept, I invoke a formula which involves multiple variables. In doing that, I am assuming that my audience has a degree of algebraic ken. This may or may not be the case.
            Recently I’ve begun to wonder if the curse of too much knowledge has now skewed about 180o. By that, I wonder if we have begun to believe that we know much more than we do or that we can easily learn what we need to. We Google something or look on Wikipedia and believe we now know. We can do this for billions of discrete pieces of information, and often we can see how one bit links to another. It’s easy—and often great fun—to become trapped in this spider web of data. It’s beautiful and enticing. It’s also misleading and dangerous.
            For example, during the recent tragedy in Japan, I have found myself looking up information about Japan, plate tectonics, and nuclear reactors. Let’s focus on the last of these. Certainly I know a bit more about how they work. But I really don’t understand the science behind them or exactly how dangerous the threat is, either within the immediate area, throughout Asia, or around the world. Similarly, as the truly historic revolutions have raged in Egypt and Libya, I’ve tried to learn more about the situations—the political structures, the history, the social conditions. I get it in general. But I don’t truly know the combustible mixture that has exploded the past few months. Even the most compelling iReport is going to evoke sympathy and perhaps some genuine empathy, but it remains virtual.
            Certainly I appreciate how much more information the Internet allows us to access. The ability to network is invaluable. Social media, list-servs, personal learning networks—certainly we can tap into the collective wisdom to enhance our own grasp of just about any topic. I see this as the real value of the web more than any information access. So this is not a Luddite rant.
            Instead, take it as a call for discernment. A reminder to step back and take stock. The wisdom of crowds is one thing. Our own wisdom is another. The untold bytes of data that form a cultural and human memory is one thing. Our individual memory is another. I worry that we are allowing the former in each comparison to replace our concern with the latter. I’ve heard people argue that there is no reason to memorize anything. I will agree that some information simply isn’t worth memorizing, but memory is a a large part of how we form any conceptual understanding. For instance, when I come across new data of any type, before I can make sense of it, I must fit it into a framework. That framework is constructed out of the memories we conjure as needed.
            As many sages have pointed out throughout the ages, we have to remain acutely aware of what we know we don’t know. Even beyond that, as Donald Rumsfeld one explained in a different context, we have to beware of the “unknown unknowns.” It’s a crucial notion as we rethink the purpose of education and any meaningful assessment of its effectiveness. Ignore it and not only will we suffer this new form of the curse of too much knowledge, we also will afflict our students with it.

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