Archive for June, 2011

“I’m not dead..I think I’ll go for a walk,” said the expert…

 

Death of the expert…

Since the opening up of the Internet and the democratization of information, there has been the idea that experts were not needed anymore; anyone could become and expert; there was no such thing as an expert – that experts were dead. While it is true that information is more readily available to each of us then ever before and to be sure, we are now much more capable in questioning or disagreeing with experts, I am afraid that the notion that the expert is dead, killed by wikipedia and the like, is just not so.

An expert is not merely someone who knows where to find information (except perhaps for the expert researcher); an expert is someone who knows the information, the ramifications of the information, the methodology and questionable assumptions of the information; and finally one who can apply the information. These are not attributes that can be mimicked by a Google or Wikipedia search.

After a nights research on the web, an amateur may in the widest of hyperbole, be considered an expert (for the sake of argument or a point) – but on their first day at best….so consider:

  • Do you want a doctor to operate on you on his/her first day (what if Google does down?)?
  • A lawyer defend you on his/her first day?
  • A police officer arrest you on his/her first day?
  • Would you pass to a winger in the Stanley cup final in overtime on his/her first day?
  • A judge judge you on his/her first day?
  • A fishing guide to take you fishing on his/her first day?
  • A survivalist to take you on a training course on his/her first day?
  • A cook to prepare you wedding feast on his/her first day?
  • An electrician to wire your home on his/her first day?
  • A real estate agent buy or sell you a home on his/her first day?
  • An accountant assess you on his/her first day?
  • Etc….

Now consider that they got their training online…hmmm…still consider them an expert. If Malcolm Gladwell and others are to be believed, it takes about 10,000 focused hours to become an expert….still think that they are dead, or are they just resting…10,000 hours is a long time on the web!

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Technology and the alphabet

I have decided to change the alphabet. There are several things I have always hated about it and it is time to fix / change them. First, I have always hated that there was no letter for the TH sound. Surely so popular a sound deserves its own letter. I have chosen % to be known as the letter “Tum” (unfortunately, the closest approximation is the percent sign; the difference is that the circles are supposed to be touching the line for the letter “Tum”). I have also always hated the arbitrary nature of the order; I propose to change it. All stick letters first, followed by stick and curve, then stick and circle letters and finally “O” will be last as it should be. I want to do more changes but %ey will have to wait.

I can do %is because %e alphabet is an invention; it was made and can be modified. It doesn’t reflect any natural order. It is a technology as is %e language %at it encodes. Often we hear %e term technology used to refer to computer or electronic devices but %is is misleading. It is one small category of technology and deserves to be treated as such. Some of %e earliest technologies invented were part of %e Oldwan culture and predate modern humans by about 2.4 million years. Ano%er important technology was fire, which has been purposefully used for about 400 000 years. %e technology %at allowed %e Homo genus to colonize Europe successfully was placing stones around a fire.

Wi% so many different technologies available, focusing on electronic technology seems risky. Aren’t chairs in a circle social media? Why is listening to a Ted Talk inherently better %en listening to a teacher? Why is Skype better %en letter writing or talking to %e primary class downstairs?

 Pencils are technology too and a powerful one at %at. It is still %e pen %at is mightier %en %e sword not %e netbook.

 PS…there are 21 % (Tums) used in %is (oops, I mean 22) post since its invention…see how important a sound it is…

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In Defense of Facts

Our current pedagogy seems to be evolving, with good reason, towards a skill based education.  Increasingly, we see our epistemology defining knowledge as skills.  Critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, argumentation, as well as research skills, internet skills, interactive and creative media skills are currently dominating our professional discussions.  The rallying cries of: the needs of the 21 century learner, student centered differentiated instruction, and the need for student engagement are largely the drive behind this shift.  It has moved us into a more dynamic and organic teacher / student / learning model.  These new focuses are generally good; they have the potential to be powerful learning environments for the betterment of our students (and ourselves).  The problem is not what these focuses do, but to borrow from Neil Postman, the problem is what we are allowing them to undo.  As we shift to skill base learning we are failing to bring with us the value of factual knowledge.  There is a misguided notion that people don’t need to know much (or anything) because as long as they can search, they will find as facts are needed. 

Route learning, memorization, and fact based learning are quickly becoming the perceived hallmark of outdated pedagogy in favour of engaging and entertaining our learners.  I have no problem with making learning engaging and even entertaining; I have no problem with a skills based learning environment.  I do think, however, that we must bring factual knowledge with us, and I do think that route learning, memorization and fact based learning must be part of a professional’s tool kit and a student’s skill set.  Let us take a moment to explore their importance before we dismiss them as outdated or irrelevant.

Part 1: In defence of the fact:

I’ll write just a few quick notes or ideas for now.  Hopefully, response will direct parts 2 and 3

We learn, must learn, facts before we can attempt the vast majority of skills (I’d argue all, but I concede that I haven’t thought of every skill next to this statement…is there any that don’t?).  To read, write or speak we have memorized hundreds of facts.  Letter shape, name, and sound, some, if not all, of the 504 phonics rules in the English language, nouns, words, sight vocabulary, etc.  To increase our understanding and develop or deploy our skills, a knowledge of these facts lie at the core.  This is just one category of facts that are required for skill based activity.

Searching for facts while otherwise engaging in a skills based activity is all well and good.  It is a seemingly miraculous advantage we enjoy over learners of 20 or so years ago.  The difficulty of course is hinted at by former Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and arranged as a found poem by Hart Seely (http://www.slate.com/id/2081042/)

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

The difficulty for skill based education and the danger of being too dismissive of the need for facts is the “unknown unknowns.”  Without some previous exposure to facts, we don’t know that we need to search or explore more…let alone what we are looking for.  By needing to search for a fact, we are admitting their importance.  Why would we not then value them once discovered, keep them, use them and share them?

A collegue recently said that our push towards skill base learning at the expense of facts is driven by an liberal art’s bias in our pedagogy.  He said that, “for math and science people, knowing stuff is important.”  I thought of a doctor and all s/he had to memorize so that s/he didn’t have to Google during an operation.  Yes, before that they researched; however, once the information had been found, s/he had to learn the facts.  The ability to memorize is key to so many jobs and professions.  Should students not get practise in those skills and habits to help prepare them as well as for gaining the contentual knowledge they presently need?

I also wonder, why we are so sure of what skills students will need in a future that we can’t predict.  In the future, won’t we need a good knowledge of facts to help them sort through the constant string of arguments or opinions that they will have to wade through.  Critical thinking skills aren’t enough.  If it is a factual error, you wont see it.

All arguments and opinions are a reaction to a fact.  They must be; otherwise, while they may have a similar grammar, they are at best a pseudo-opinion.  Before we dismiss the ability to memorize or learn by route as outdated and dangerous, we need to remember that factual knowledge  is at the base of all other skills.

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