Analysis Paralysis

I started last week’s presentation on Google Docs with this xkcd cartoon.


I’ve commented many times that my smartphone replaced more than half a dozen devices that I used to carry around with me. I no longer need a digital camera, digital video camera, mp3 player, navigation system, PDA, or wristwatch. I have access to the Internet all the time. But even if I didn’t, I could text Google and they would try to answer my questions.

I can also send a message to anyone in my personal learning network, regardless of where they are, and typically get a very quick reply. The network is always there. It’s always on.

That’s what Erik Duval means by abundance. His  session for this week’s #change11 course,  Learning in a Time of Abundance, resonated with me more than any of the others we’ve had so far. As a computer science professor, Erik has the opportunity to model the change he thinks we need in academia. Why do teachers stand in front of a group of students for 40 minutes (or 80 minutes) and present information? The students already have the information. Facts are easy to find. Explanations of nearly all of the concepts we teach in school are readily available online. And they’re going to be online forever. What does that mean?

Before written language, we had to remember everything. The entire sum of all human knowledge had to be passed down from generation to generation orally. If it wasn’t, it was lost. Eventually, we developed ways to store things outside our brains. We started writing things down. And it’s a good thing we did: I can’t remember even a tiny fraction of all of the things I’ve learned, let alone all the stuff everyone has learned.

But now we’re in a new age. The sheer volume of stuff we’re writing down is growing faster than we can count it. The current state of the art changes faster than we can identify it, let alone teach it. Duval is a professor and researcher working on human-computer interaction. He knows a lot about the subject, and stays on the cutting edge of that technological frontier. But if he focuses just on information — just on passing on the current state of knowledge in his field — his students will be behind by the time they leave university.

Instead, his classes take a different approach. He starts by giving his students access to the information. All of the information. All of the time. They have cell phones and laptops and tablets and all kinds of Internet-enabled devices. They use them in his class. All of the time.  They don’t have to unplug. And this era of information abundance is a two-way street. In addition to having access to everything, his students also share their work. Everyone has access to the work they’re doing. They’re blogging and tweeting and publicly sharing their work. The students set goals that are measurable and trackable. They build tools (it is a computer science class, after all) to track their goals and visually monitor their progress. The students develop and use a variety of quantitative measures for formative assessment. The summative piece looks more like a job performance review than a course exam. Look at the goals. How have you progressed? It’s a conversation between professor and student. The result is a narrative, which is then boiled down to a numeric score.

Things are a little more difficult in K-12 education. We have a lot of cultural baggage that is hard to change. Classes have to be 50 minutes long, and students have to take 5-7 of them per day. Each teacher has his own teaching style, his own grading methods, his own philosophy of how this education thing should work. Parents, for all they say about preparing their children for the future, really just want school to be like it was when they were students.

Duval suggests that teachers work to change the things in their control — the things that happen in their classrooms. Don’t try to reform the entire educational system. Give students access to the information. Stop lecturing so much. Adapt grading styles to be more authentic. Push students to move from remembering to applying and creating. Get over the fact that you can’t be in control of everything. Seek forgiveness rather than permission.

We spend a lot of time talking about these things. There really is nothing new here. From Bloom’s revised taxonomy to the framework of professional learning communities, to the 21st Century Skills movement, everyone is talking about the same things. But we suffer from analysis paralysis. We spend too much time talking about what schools should be and not enough time making them that.

Be the change.

Image credit: Randall Munroe, xkcd.

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Author: John Schinker

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1 thought on “Analysis Paralysis”

  1. As a former educator and now a grandmother ordinary citizen, my concern to instant access is that anyone can say anything without verification and to often any facts supporting what they are putting out for others to consider as truth or the fact. I know the textbooks don'[t always get it right either, but at least there was more than one person checking on the accuracy of the printed word. Not so with instant communication. I even make typos which might change the whole idea of what I am trying to say! How can we “fix” this problem and what the eventual consequences might be is my question.

    Thanks for listening. I for one am not ready to keep hopping from one piece of equipment to something that will do more in less time. People of earlier generations move more slowly to embrace technology. It has been the same thru the ages. One reason is if you don’t use it you will loose it and so it is with me and knowing how to do simple things like change the font in my word processing program! I don’t have the time to experiment every time to relearn how to do something I don’t use often so I stick to tried and true. I still miss my typewriter sometimes!

    As for the classroom, something spoken is much more easily learned than something read, digested, and intellectualized esp. for younger folks. That is the value of the teacher giving information. They can suggest alternative ways to look at a problem which might bring understanding and recognition from a student which the written word could not do. Can learning be done without a teacher? Certainly. Does it happen faster and more efficiently with interaction? I believe often that is the case. Good teachers do much more than disperse information. They excite, motivate, share experience, and share information. They teach!

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