Sand in the Sahara

The other day I was trying to work out how experiential and academic learning interact.  In the process I also found myself assuming things about fundamental learning skills that don’t necessarily exist in many modern classrooms:

Foundational skills are changing now that information is no longer scarce

It used to be that literacy and numeracy were the student skills we felt they needed to succeed.  Information fluency was less important because the gatekeepers of knowledge (teachers) and the limited nature of published paper meant you didn’t have access to what you needed to know so you needed an expert to direct you.  In a world with limited information having a guide direct you to a scarce resource is invaluable.

When I was in high school information was hard to come by.  You needed access to a limited number of books and if you had a question a teacher would provide you access to that information.  Because of scarcity, verbal transmission of information (teacher’s mouth to student’s ear) made sense.  Many teachers still cling to that model because it’s the only one they’ve ever known and they identify their profession through that process.  In 2014 they they are trying to sell sand in what has become the Sahara.

Information is abundant and accessible with only a basic understanding of the technology that provides it.  A modern student who looks to a teacher to give them facts has been conditioned by teachers to be helpless.  Teachers who jealously guard and distribute knowledge in predigital ways are the ones crying about how technology lets students plagiarize or collaborate with each other, or share information – it’s really all the same thing.  Students who are able to find, critically assess and organize information are the ones modelling 21st Century skills.  The ones who have been taught to be passive receivers in a sea of information are a failure in an education system set on maintaining traditional habits.

Considering how information fluency has changed from a passive to an active pursuit (in much the same way that passive TV watching has evolved into active video game participation), it would behoove the education system to recognize the need to integrate information fluency into early education in order to produce self-directed, empowered learners who are able to leverage the ocean of information that surrounds them.  Ignoring this new fundamental skill is producing whole generations of digital serfs.

There is no doubt that literacy, numeracy and the basic socialization of early school is still the foundation, but upon that foundation we should be building information fluency in order to produce people who are not overwhelmed or habituated into a dangerously simplistic relationship with information technology.  By the time a student reaches secondary school they should be sufficiently skilled in literacy, numeracy and information fluency to be able to self direct many aspects of their learning.  In that environment a classroom teacher would very much be a facilitator rather than a traditional teacher, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t take information fluency as seriously as we do literacy and numeracy.

Building foundational learning skills should result in empowered, self-directed learners who can
survive and thrive in an information rich world.