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Information and Knowledge

John Simkin

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Interesting article by Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology, about the use of new technologies in the classroom.


When you read a book, the author usually takes you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative of interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree, or one that you enjoy, but none the less, as you turn the pages, one train of thought succeeds the last in a logical fashion. We can then compare one narrative with another and, in so doing, start to build up a conceptual framework that enables us to evaluate further journeys, which, in turn, will influence our individualised framework. We can place an isolated fact in a context that gives it a significance. So traditional education has enabled us to turn information into knowledge.

Now imagine there is no robust conceptual framework. You are sitting in front of a multimedia presentation where you are unable, because you have not had the experience of many different intellectual journeys, to evaluate what is flashing up on the screen. The most immediate reaction would be to place a premium on the most obvious feature, the immediate sensory content, the "yuk" and "wow" factor.

You would be having an experience rather than learning. The sounds and sights of a fast-moving multimedia presentation displace any time for reflection, or any idiosyncratic or imaginative connections we might make as we turn the pages, and then stare at a wall to reflect upon them.

Navigation on the internet is wonderful - if you have a conceptual framework in which to embed the responses that flash up. But we should not assume that all children will be so well equipped. The UK Children Go Online investigation by Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics found that 92% of nine- to 19-year-olds have accessed the internet from a computer at home or school, but 30% have received no lessons at all on using the internet and only 33% of regular users have been taught how to judge the reliability of online information.

We have access to unlimited and up-to-date information at the touch of a button, but in this new, answer-rich world, surely we must ensure that we are able to pose appropriate, meaningful questions?

In response to a question I asked in the Lords some weeks ago, the education minister Lord Adonis said:"The ICT curriculum specifically requires pupils at key stages 3 and 4 to be taught to question the plausibility of information and to be discriminating in their use of information sources." That is as may be, but until ICT is fully integrated throughout education (using more than just interactive whiteboards), it will difficult for any child to learn the crucial skills needed to turn information into knowledge.

Does this mean young people are acquiring or will need different skills? Memory, for example, may no longer be as essential as it was for those of us who had to learn reams of Latin grammar, but with everything just a click away, perhaps we are at risk of losing our imagination, that mysterious and special cognitive gift that until now has always made the book so much better than the film.

I am not proposing that we become IT Luddites, but rather that we could be stumbling into a powerful technology, the impact of which we understand poorly at the moment. Initiatives such as the Economic and Social Research Council-funded seminar series Collaborative Frameworks in Neuroscience and Education have been a catalyst for bringing together neuroscientists and educators to help us start to understand learning and to create an evidence base upon which 21st-century education can be built. But now is the time to ensure public engagement in the process.

We need to consider how 21st-century technology can help deliver a 21st-century education system, by coordinating on a nationwide scale, within both the public and private sectors, the best of science and technology initiatives.

Many admirable projects are in train, but the public needs to know about them, and they need to know about one another. One such, our own Institute for the Future of the Mind in Oxford (part of the James Martin School for the 21st Century), is asking four questions: What are the influences on children today? Where is the actual evidence of a new type of impact? What do we actually want children to learn? And, most important, how do we deliver these aims using the new technologies?

No one independent institution or organisation, no one single project, can take on such a challenge. I believe that drugs, technology and learning are some of the key areas in which science will have a profound impact upon society in the coming years.

We are in a crucial period during which science, education and civil society need to come together to ensure that the citizens of 21st-century Britain have the most fulfilling lives possible, in the most successful society possible.

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I've always thought that history teachers, at least those with a strong sense of helping children to "do" history - as opposed to those who help children to simply "learn" it, are at an advantage when talking about information skills. What are historical skills if they are not techniques of obtaining, evaluating, manipulating (in a non pejorative sense) and presenting information?

A good place to start with this kind of thing might be Albert's e-help seminar. One of the links he posted was this.

(edited for daft spelling)

Edited by Ed Podesta
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I was talking about this with a bloke called Johnny Widen, who's one of the 'grand old men' of ICT in Sweden. In the early 1980s at what is now Luleå Technical University, Johnny was behind the drive to use computers in education. He's a technician himself, and his natural starting point was with technicians, engineers and scientists. He acknowledges now that that was a mistake … because many of those people are extremely conservative (as they need to be - you don't want 'suck it and see' civil engineers).

I mentioned to him how quickly humanities teachers got up and running, and how generally creative they are when they finally 'get' what ICT is. My explanation for this covers a few areas, such as the way we constantly have to make a distinction between outward form and inner substance, and the role we humanities people can play at a time of paradigm shift. We aren't expecting verities or absolute principles, so it's much easier for us to adapt and adopt in a situation where the parameters within which we're working are still very fluid.

It's certainly been borne out in my current department (Humanities and Social Sciences). We're absolutely the cutting edge department at our university when it comes to the use of ICT in education.

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I found this article very thought provoking. It is vitally important that we give students the opportunity to reflect on the information they are receiving. Reflection is easy when reading but extremely difficult when watching multimedia presentations. One way this can happen is to turn the student from consumers to producers. However, with the emphasis on “tests” and “examinations” time becomes a major issue. To remember is not to learn. I fear that what goes on in schools is too much about remembering information for a short-term task (the next test) than about learning long-term skills or concepts.

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Long-term remembering is a good thing as far as foreign languages are concerned. It's useful to carry 3000 words around in one's head, combined with the knowledge of how to put them together and the skills of understanding them when they are spoken and pronouncing them correctly.

I did short courses in Russian and Chinese back in the 1960s while I was in the sixth form and at university.

I didn't get round to using my Russian until 1995 when I went to Minsk. A colleague and I were left waiting at Minsk ariport. The chauffeur of a car arrived to pick us up, said something in Russian, which I didn't catch. I remembered (from around 35 years previously) how to say "Sorry, I don't understand. Can you speak slowly, please?" The driver then spoke slowly, and I understood that he wanted us to put our luggage in the boot of his car and to wait while he sorted something out with the immigration officials who had held up another member of our group.

I didn't get round to using my Chinese until 1998. I followed a BBC radio course in Mandarin Chinese in the mid-1960s. The Mandarin that I practised pronouncing in the 1960s on my old reel-to reel tape recorder was still firmly embedded in my memory over 30 years later when I was travelling with my wife Sally on the monorail in Sydney in 1998. A Chinese family of four entered our carriage and began conversing quite loudly. I picked up enough to understand that they were talking about me when I heard the words for the "old ("lai") American" and something about my "grey hair". They weren't being insulting as referring to someone as old and grey is a compliment in Chinese (as I had understood from my three postgraduate Chinese students at the time). Imagine the family's surprise when I turned to them and said in Chinese "Bu shi mei-guo ren, shi ying-guo ren" ("I'm not an American, I'm English".

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