January 11, 2006

Time for knowledge and wisdom

“I never have the time”. “The internet’s just providing too much information these days”. “No-one ever knows where to start with all this information”. Common symptoms of the Non-Believer, enough to stop him or her ever starting their own blog, podcast or del.icio.us bookmarking site. But there is some truth in what these detractors say.

The internet could be seen as becoming a victim of its own success by providing a means for the masses to not only seek information but, in the past few years, to provide their own versions and interpretations of information in real time and at the click of a mouse. Information which would have been interesting in a book two years ago would now be of more interest in a blog, defunct in days or hours as it is reinterpreted by scores, hundreds or thousands of others around the globe. (This is why the concept of a blog as a portfolio of work is such a bizarre thought for me: it’s setting your work up to be reinterpreted when, with the finished products of a portfolio, you want to present, for better or for worse, a final version of your thoughts. But I digress…)

As educators we believe we work first and foremost in the knowledge industry, yet our current attitudes and beliefs of what in fact constitutes knowledge are widely out of touch with the reality of modern knowledge systems.

As Dave Weinberger noted in his article in Smart Tech’s ieMagazine Autumn 2005:

The traditional idea of Western knowledge goes back to the Greeks. They had an intensely practical problem: When the citizens of the city spoke up in Athens’ democracy (no women, poor people or slaves need apply), how could they decide whom to believe? The craft of rhetoric was advancing. Could human judgment keep up with it? Are there ways of discerning a true opinion from a false one? What makes an opinion worthy of belief? Thus did the quest for knowledge begin.

I, along with Weinberger, would take issue with this definition, though, based on some excellent writing in this year’s Newsweek Issues 2006 that makes the salient distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’. What Dave Weinberger is describing latterly is more to do with wisdom than knowledge. I ask how much our classrooms, schools and education systems are geared up to impart wisdom. Do most teachers you know teach wisdom? Would they know how to ascertain the author, date and time written of a web page or blog post? Do they know how to use referencing tools such as Google and Technorati to work out the relative reliability of opinion? Do they know how to realize when someone with a high rating in one of these referencers is abusing their position? Do they know how to teach their students to think for themselves when the find someone at the end of the Long Tail, with few references, but a great point to make?

And to go back to knowledge, in our blogged and tagged world, what is knowledge? Thanks to del.icio.us and the interlinked world of the blogosphere every person has a different account of knowledge.

So what can we do with so much information, and is this the first time that we have had to cope with this onslaught of information. Is this info flux a Bad Thing?

Info Flux: a Bad Thing?

Note the question mark. Fareed Zakaria’s opening piece in this year’s Special Edition Newsweek does a first class job at positioning today’s knowledge crisis within the context of world history. My favourite quote is from Thomas Hobbes, 1651: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. He was describing the average life of the average human  being. Those who did not have that particular life were those with knowledge, generally merchants, princes and priests.

Well, here’s my take. In today’s knowledge society the gap is probably growing between those who have the knowledge and those who don’t, except those without the knowledge don’t have to inhabit Third World countries. As Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon’s Global Voices project shows, the Third World is able to use weblogs and podcasts to increase their knowledge and thus compete in the global knowledge economy of which we are all part. No, those who are going to chance a life that ressembles Hobbes’ “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” one. And at the moment those who are choosing to ignore this information society include a scary number of our teachers.

Leapfrogging the info flux until it’s safe to come out

Another (great) point made in this Newsweek story is the description of industrial revolution. Britain slogged it out, inventing everything that makes the world go round today (penicillin, phone, steam engines, TV, tarmac… and, yes, all of these were from Scottish inventors ;-)). America, then Japan, Taiwan, then Korea and then the rest of China jumped onto our bandwagon and made a killing. Britain paid for the R&D in sweat, toil and tears but the others, quite rightly, waited until it was a safe bet. France made the mistake of guarding its information (in Minitel) instead of making the Minitel public and sharing the secrets. If they had done that they would have been the inventors of the Internet. Imagine if they had privatised that one…

The problem for Scottish teachers, and almost certainly for those elsewhere in Europe at the moment, is that the R&D of today is taking place in the same countries that jumped on our bandwagon. I feel we’re seriously missing the boat on the information bandwagon through our education system’s reluctance to adopt ‘risky’ (in their eyes) solutions that have potential. Meanwhile, our students are living in a vacuum of knowledge – the knowledge that really matters to them in their futures – because their elders are not actively seeking to put in the effort to make risky projects work. Like John Logie Baird, Alexander Bell, James Watt and all these other Scottish inventors took huge risks in their projects.

180pxcharlesbabbageThis very British relationship with the computer goes back to the computer’s inventor (yes, he was a Brit, too). Having made a prototype of the Difference Engine that did very little but which had obvious potential for the early 1800s, Charles Babbage needed a benefactor to test it out on a larger scale. He ended up getting the money and spending it on something he thought would be better. He didn’t share this with anyone. He spent all the money and died a lonely, detested, mocked man.

If he had been able to share his knowledge with a wider community in the way that we can now someone would have left a message on his blog telling him to go with his original thought. If he wrote back and refused they would have bought the idea from him and done it themselves, saving the human race the 200 year wait, the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. With a blog, a podcast maybe, his sources and plans bookmarked in del.icio.us, he would have been liberated, empowered, faster, better and more successful in making his project work.

And so why, when we have the tools, do teachers, Local Authorities and national authorities refuse to use and endorse them?

I plan, in my own little way, to do my bit in Scotland to change that. Anyone want to join me?

Next Post: Moving towards Digital Learning Aggregation to open the social world.


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I found this post via Will Richardson's blog. I just wrote briefly about the potential irrelevancy of today's classroom because of the painfully slow adoption of the information tools by teachers. Young people, on the other hand, are operating in this environment with skill and ease. If the teacher does not catch on to the same information gathering tools that are indispensable to her students, can she be an effective authority on learning?

I don't think so at all, no. A teacher should be showing their students how to learn. Most are very strong on meta-cognition now, better than they were 15 years ago. However, they are ignoring tools that allow meta-cognition, learning how to learn, happen in real time, with more influencing experts and peers. The danger is that we lose the progress made through knowing more about the way we learn. I think, at least... ;-)

Hi Ewen,

First of all, great to read you. I really enjoyed reading this post. You sure dive into a lot of meat, and have left me with a great deal of things to sift through and think about.

But to focus a little on the blogfolio side of things, you said:
"This is why the concept of a blog as a portfolio of work is such a bizarre thought for me: it’s setting your work up to be reinterpreted when, with the finished products of a portfolio, you want to present, for better or for worse, a final version of your thoughts. But I digress…)"

As I read your comment, I had this thought: in today's world, knowledge is never static. I would also suggest that development that is real, is also never static.

I once read somewhere that a blog is, or can never be, or should never be, taken as a PERIOD. A final thought. Blogs are open, living creatures that provide snapshots of growth, thought, development etc.

To me, development should never stop. That's why I think a blog is a great place to store a portfolio...or atleast grow one. The possibilities of interaction around portfolio artefacts is just amazing - the chance for continual feedback and improvement.

I think Stephen Downes...if bloglines ever comes up again I'll pass you his link, has a really interesting outlook on the knowledge of today..that it's dynamic and growing...ever changing, where the concept of knowledge long ago is like reading a book, and putting it on your shelf - there, you've learned what you need to know. Not today. Today you need to take down that book, rip off the end cover, open the binding so you can add to, and alter previous pages. And the book is never put on the shelf...a finished product. It's an ongoing product.

That's my view of a portfolio. An ongoing conversation with yourself, your peers, your market, your employer (future or present.)

I don't know. Perhaps I ramble. These are just my ideas, and I would really love to learn more about yours...

I see where you're coming from clearer now, Aaron, and I share every one of your views on knowledge and the ever-changing nature of it. That's why wisdom is so vital to make sense of it and change previous knowledge wisely.

I think the realist in me, though, says that most educators and, particularly, examination bodies do not see a portfolio as something that should be changed. We speak of 'final drafts', 'final exams' or simply 'finals'. Of course, this is ridiculous. The most ridiculous 'final exam' I ever sat was for my Honours year when I sat European Law. Two weeks afterwards, and I knew this was going to happen as I sat the exam, all the Treaty numbers of the EU were changed as part of the Amsterdam Treaty. 'Final exam'? My eye! But those attitudes haven't changed at any stage in the education system.

Unless someone can tell me otherwise...

Hi Ewan,
Great post, I've not got enough time to really do it justice, but I posted some knee jerks. BTW where did the trackback link go?

I had to turn off Trackbacks after some uncontrollable spam. Better turn those off and have open comments than to have to premoderate everything. Hope it's not too much of a pain. I use Technorati to follow all the links. That should keep me on the straight and narrow. Cheers,
(Oh, and the irony... "not enough time to do it justice" ;-)

Dear Ewan,
As a "print" author, I disagree with your comment that "Information which would have been interesting in a book two years ago would now be of more interest in a blog, defunct in days or hours as it is reinterpreted by scores, hundreds or thousands of others around the globe".
Maybe you were thinking of a different kind of book from the ones I'm thinking of. Personally, I have never had internet feedback that altered my opinion, or added to my knowledge, of material that I presented in book form. (The last part of that sentence is important.) As an "academic" author, I find that I get more perceptive feedback from peer reviews and colleagues' e-mails.
Maybe we're talking about different things?

I think we are. I love a good book that tells a story or relates facts about something which is relatively static. I find it difficult to conceive of a book, though, that talks about the things I read on others' blogs because in the last six months alone things have changed so much. In fact, in talking about anything that has appeared on the internet first one would run the risk of being completely out of date by documenting it, although now that you have got me thinking, I'm sure the blogs from schools that I have seen so far will provide useful case studies for years to come.

Yup, OK. You've got me convinced. A book of information is not intended to be disputed and almost certainly the authors put in more effort to make sure it stays that way.

Thanks for the reply, Ewan.

I was thinking about this all afternoon (while I was supposed to be learning about Media Education ...), and it seems to me that there are really two internets. An internet of ideas (this is your Web 2.0) and an internet of information (usually established print sources using the internet as a supplementary medium).

The internet of ideas is completely unregulated and may contain wildly off-the-wall stuff that you wouldn't want your pupils coming within bargepole-poking distance of -- this is the world of blogs and podcasts (and, of course, homepages).

Then (it seems to me) there's the "establishment" internet, the Guardian Unlimited, Independent Online, Encyclopedia Britannica internet, where you mostly pay money to guarantee that you're getting accurate information.

Resources like Wikipedia are fantastic, and (from my limited experience) pretty trustworthy -- anybody who can be bothered to write an article on the "fetch-execute cycle" probably knows it inside-out -- , but there's no guarantee. We're essentially relying on other expert users spotting errors and taking the trouble to correct them. (That last bit doesn't necessarily follow.)

That's just my pessimistic view. Maybe others are more sanguine. (That's a good word for a Friday afternoon!)

I don't really get this idea of internet of ideas and internet of information, which comes across as if the former is less credible than the latter. It is people's interpretation of information that is interesting - if people don't get it what does that tell you about the information? Is there a case for you, as a potential blogger, to put them right if you think they've got the wrong end of the information stick?

The idea that blogs and podcasts contain mostly unreliable information has been widely disproved. It goes to the trust that I was talking about in the lecture - or rather the false trust that we have for 'official' sources. We should ALWAYS check out the reliability of a source, whether that is the BBC or the Guardian or a blog. Incidentally, the Guardian is THE newspaper of blogs and I reckon they would argue heavily that they are not part of the establishment. At the end of the day, your students (and you) will probably only ever read blogs that are recommended to you. I've never read one blog that has not been recommended through the blog of someone I trust. As your personal web grows you gain more and more reliable sources of information.

As for the existence of an 'establishment internet' - that's a legacy of the time when specialists made up websites. Now that anyone can, and that anyone can subvert a large company with their blog, that era is dying (http://edu.blogs.com/edublogs/2005/12/educators_dell_.html)

And wikipedia is almost as accurate as the Brittanica (3 errors on average for Britannica, with 4 for Wikipedia) but the wikipedia entries are SIX times longer on average, giving a wider and more up-to-date breadth of knowledge.

Ewan, any chance you can release the full article in your RSS feed?


Knowledge and Wisdom.

Is the Brain of Britain wise?

Does the acquiring of knowledge help us to become wise?

Too much of the mass of writing that occupies the internet is to do with knowledge or information.

Some devote their lives to it.

Some blog writers spend all their time digesting, understanding, reviewing and commenting on information or the newest tools that have just been created.

I would rate a wise and computer illiterate teacher one hundred (think of any number) times more effective a teacher than the most up to date wizz on what's going on with the internet who has little time to stand back and ask "What real use to me is all this?".

We need to develop the skills of reflection and experience to guide us through the very complex world we live in. Most of the information available is pointless unless it is relevant to what we ourselves (not our bosses) are trying to achieve.

Wisdom first - after long reflection choose a clear goal that satisfies our (and the people around us) emotional wellbeing.

Then carefully assess what tools help us get there. Sometimes the usefulness of a tool is far overstated when we analyse not only what it is designed to do but whether it achieves this goal.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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