Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.


If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills

 

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