computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mistaking access to information for learning

OK – the party line goes something like this:

‘Before’, information was scarce, so it made sense to crowd people into rooms where they all faced the front so that one expert could enlighten them.


‘Now’, information is readily available, so that this structure is obsolete.

The trouble with this analysis is that it starts with a false picture of the past. Most of what has ever been taught in schools has not been information that is particularly hard to come by.

Nothing I teach has ever been a secret. Most of what I teach is fairly simple, conceptually, and very easy to look up.

So, why do they pay me?

Because learning new stuff is difficult.

Skinner’s famous axiom was that (since we can’t see inside people’s heads) the only way to tell if someone has learned something is that they show new behaviour. Unfortunately, getting humans to act in new ways is difficult. Very difficult.

I feel left out of the party. The information revolution is supposed to be transforming schooling. “Pupils now have all the information in the world in their pockets and can find the answer to any question in seconds.” True, but irrelevant. This does not transform school, because school has never been about digging around for scarce information. This does not transform the role of the teacher, because the role of the teacher never has been the sole point of access to important but inaccessible information.

Information has become much easier to access in the last few years, but that ease of access has meant nothing for my teaching because scarcity of information has never been the issue. The difficulty of learning is the issue and sometimes I feel that all the digital revolution has given me are a bunch of shiny new toys that don’t even work half the time and distract my pupils when they do.

(Part 4 in the series Sick of Gurus)


  1. I do think that the vast amount of information available to the students should in some way affect the way we teach. They might be able to find an answer to any question. They need to learn how to find the correct answers. And most importantly, how to do this effectively.

    But, all I have is a half finished degree, no real experience and lots of great ideas that are probably impossible to put into real life. I'm truly appreciating your blog, and I refer to it whenever I need to be reminded about how the reality really is :)

  2. Thanks for your touching comment...

    Don't underestimate your own worth. You've probably been to school for many years and now you're thinking about school. Not least, you probably have a lifetime of experience as a learner. You're absolutely qualified to say something about school in my book.

    The transformational effects of the "vast amount of information available to students" should indeed be affecting the way we teach. Well, it should be radically transforming it, but the revolution is rocky (as revolutions are) and slow to get going (as everything connected with school is). That is the background for this blog and hundreds of others.

    I'm interested in your point "They might be able to find an answer to any question. " They should be - and part of our job is to help them with that, as you imply. For those teachers for whom learning is a process of memorising unconnected facts, there is a real challenge in the digital revolution, of course. My main point here is that most of us have never been that kind of teacher and thus much of what has been written and talked about so far in terms of the transformation of schooling seems kind of irrelevant...

  3. I think I pretty much skimmed through your entire blog in the past few hours. It was very interesting, particularly the series on furnishing the classroom (the reversed double horseshoe sounds... intriguing) and the "Sick of Gurus"-series.

    Then I ran into your post about me, and was practically forced to comment. This one, that is: http://simon-losingmyfaith.blogspot.com/2009/05/student-blogs.html Thanks for your compliments, although it's a bit awkward that I didn't discover them until almost a year after it was posted.

    And yes, you would be a ninja as you read it without making yourself known. My new (but disturbingly serious) blog should be available through my profile. And, as you have presumably forgotten me, you were my English teacher in International English two years ago.

  4. @Magnus.

    Of course I remember you.

    I can't help but be a bit amused by the fact that you have become a bit of a blogger, given the slightly sceptical tone of the blog you wrote in your final year English class.