Lost in the Information Jungle

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Unfortunately, there are many myths in the teaching and learning space that are as ill-founded as they are stubborn. In the context of the so-called iPad schools, one of these myths is that learners can identify their own learning needs and regulate their own learning processes. This “meta-myth” myth consists of several sub myths.

The first sub myth is: Because all information is available on the internet, there is no need to teach it. This is what Sugata Mitra[1] states in his TED talks and what the Dutch social geographer and opinion pollster turned ‘crime fighter’ and self-styled ‘educational expert / innovator and school reformer’ whose expertise seems to be based on seeing his 3-year old daughter playing with an iPad Maurice de Hond would argue when explaining why his iPad schools are the answer to the just as mythical undocumented problem in the current education system. They support their statements with remarks such as: “Nowadays, knowledge is as perishable as fresh fish” and therefore the memorising of facts is useless. Or “We are experiencing a revolution of little children” while the “classic chalk-and-blackboard teachers are preparing children for a world that no longer exists.” Makes sense? Not really. With this type of statements, it becomes clear that people confuse knowledge obsolescence with the information increase and self-determination for play with self-regulation for learning.

It’s not true that so much of our knowledge is quickly outdated and that the half-life of our knowledge is ever decreasing to a lever that some feel makes the learning and acquisition of concepts and facts superfluous. What is completely true, however, is that there is an incredible, possibly exponential increase in the amount of information available to us; information that’s either correct, dubious, or just downright plain nonsense. And also, the rate of this increase is itself increasing. Unfortunately, a lot of the information available on the web is pure rubbish; everybody and their uncle can publish whatever they want or believe in online. This is exactly the reason why a strong knowledge base is required as this base help us judge the information published. It allows us to identify whether what is put up on the web is reliable, useful, and usable. Without basic knowledge, (1) what is posted is taken as true on face value[2], (2) you cannot discern whether what you have found is relevant[3], and (3) no knowledge deepening or broadening can take place.

The second sub myth is that children can direct and regulate their own learning. This is a real paradox. Self-directedness means that you choose what you would like to learn; that is, you set your own learning objectives. Then, you identify for yourself which learning tasks would be best to use to achieve your learning objectives and in which sequence you should select and complete these tasks. Self-regulation means that you are able to plan the actual performance within a learning task, monitor progress and evaluate learning outcomes. However, in the real world only experts (i.e., people who are knowledgeable in the area that they wish to gain new knowledge in) are able to direct and monitor their learning because they (1) know what they themselves know and don’t know and therefore can identify their own learning objectives, (2) can then determine which knowledge and skills they miss, and thus need, to achieve a certain learning objective, complete the learning task correctly or solve the problem the right way and (3) can find the missing links and judge their usability. A novice, which is what most learners per definition are, cannot do this.

 A third reason why self-directedness of learners is a myth comes down to the fact that learners (1) usually choose something to learn that they like or a way of learning that they prefer; something they can complete easily and (2) often times choose to learn something that they feel confident about in order to prevent themselves from making errors.

Way back in 1987 Richard Clark highlighted all these problems when he warned for learning activities that were prone to kill actual learning. He called these debilitating activities mathemathantic (activities which kill learning) analogous to the positive learning activities which what Ernst Rothkopf in 1965 dubbed mathemagenic (activities which give birth to learning).

Based on all of this you can probably very easily see the possible consequences of, for example, iPad schools. In their Dutch manifesto, they promise, among other things, that children are allowed to decide what and when they want to learn and that teachers are there to help children to get even better in what they are already good at. Shouldn’t it be the case that education helps children learn what they need to learn and to grow in areas in which they are not so good yet? They also promise to always use the latest techniques to prepare children for the world of tomorrow, as if every new gadget is beneficial to learning (Kirschner just published an article in Computers in Human Behavior about Facebook® as new learning tool) and/or that each teacher knows how to implement such tools so as to be effective, efficient, and/or enjoyable. Research shows, in any event, that even Net-generation teachers can’t! And how does this ‘choose yourself’ approach align with the school’s promise to “prepare you for your next school”?

No. This blog is NOT a plea for giving the teacher total control of all learning. However, we do think it’s important to create awareness for the paradox of choice: Yes, human beings appreciate freedom of choice[4], however the more options they have (1) the more chances there are of making the wrong one and (2) the more frustrating it is to actually make a good choice. This is known as the paradox of choice[5]. People appreciate having the opportunity to make some choices, but the more options that they have to choose from, the more frustrating it is to make the choice (Schwartz, 2004). It is, thus, important to give learners limited rather than unlimited control, because having to choose from too many options is perceived as frustrating. For learning it’s critical to allow a certain amount of freedom to learners, however, the range within they can choose must be limited and must be aligned to what they need to learn and what they can handle.

This is why we advocate for a model of ‘shared control’ in which teachers thoughtfully limit choices, learners make choices, and teachers gradually release control until learners are able to navigate the world on their own’. Hence, also for self-directedness, we must think about the Zone of Proximal Development!

[1]     If you want to read a poignant critique of this research, go to https://xyofeinstein.wordpress.com/2015/08/01/mitra-doet-terug-straffe-uitspraak-maar-de-basis-is-flinterdun/ and if you’re a Chrome user right click “translate to English”.

[2]     The followers of Vani Hari, alias the “Food Babe” and “Anti-Vaxxers” are perfect examples of this.

[3]     Take, for example, the journalist who wrote an article on the 16th century natural philosopher (what we call a physicist today) Sir Francis Bacon based on what he found via Google on the 20th century artist with the same name since he had no idea what a natural philosopher was! or
The American Republican nominee hopeful in 2012 Michelle Bachman who announced her run for the nomination “in the birthplace of that great American patriot John Wayne” only to be told that where she made the statement was the birthplace of John Wayne Gacy, an American serial killer and rapist who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men.

[4]     Unfortunately, people often don’t choose wisely or well. The obesity crisis in the US is primarily the result of American’s free choice of supersized portions of things that are fatty, sugary, and salty.

[5]     Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York, NY: Ecco.

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