New Information Processes

Robert Pondiscio started a great discussion on Twitter in the classroom over on The Core Knowledge Blog. In particular, I’m interested in one of his comments:

If someone invented a 21st century hammer it wouldn’t dramatically change the training and experience a contractor would need to build a house. Nor would anyone suggest that “tool fluency” is now the soul of carpentry. And so it is with information literacy. It dramatically expands access to information. It doesn’t change how we process it.

The emphasis is mine. Now, whether tools like Twitter or Today’s Meet are useful in classrooms is a broader discussion than I want to deal with right now*, but here’s a more specific question: does the way we access information alter the ways we process it?

Let’s look at the history of writing in general: Socrates was against it. He felt that writing diminished the ability of the reader/listener to question and interact with the author/speaker, and, in an eerily familiar concern, that the written word destroy our memories. Socrates worked by his eponymous method, a rhetorical strategy of questioning to ferret out truth and expose falsehood and fallacy. When he was presented with a written argument, he was not able to evaluate its author, nor to directly question the author’s deductions.

Here we have a physiological shift in how we process information: from listening with our ears to reading with our eyes. I’m not a neurologist, but I’m sure those processes involve different areas of the brain—though surely with much overlap.

But more crucially, the reader typically processes much larger chunks of content than the listener. The listener is able to interrupt, clarify, disagree with any particular point.  The listener can be persuaded by discussion while the reader must accept what is written, or not. Readers who wish to respond often do so en masse, with equal-length writings, rather than specific questions.

The technology of writing changed how we access information, how we process it, and how we respond to it.

For all the downfalls, and all of Socrates concerns, writing spread throughout the civilized world, because it has several key advantages over the oral/aural tradition. Writing can be stored for later, copied, distributed. A performance of The Iliad requires the audience to come together at a time and place; the book can be read by individuals at their leisure, passed around and carried to new places—though it loses the meter, rhythm and excitement imparted by the performer.

From our historical point of view, writing enables us to create more “complete” works, uninterrupted by the audience, with more time to contemplate, and forces us to form arguments on a larger scale than when speaking. From Socrates point of view, those were not advantages.

So, when Stuart comments

Many things that are really worth knowing — whether world history or human anatomy or advanced physics — will demand that a student be able to pay attention to dense texts for long periods of time, along with memorizing quite a bit of what is printed there.

remember that the books he’s praising would not, could not, exist without writing, a technology that altered our way of storing and accessing information. (And without the printing press, we wouldn’t have homework, either, and kids would not be expected to read those books.)

Let’s stick with writing and jump ahead, way past the typewriter to the word processor. Why the word processor?

If you are writing by hand, chiseling in rock, painting on papyrus, or even using a typewriter, writing and editing are essentially linear processes. You write in order. Changing the order is a cumbersome process, and nearly any edit requires a complete re-type.

With the advent of the word processor, non-linear editing is possible. The way we approach, and critique, writing is so significantly different, thanks only to cut, copy, and paste, that I doubt many of us can truly appreciate the shift. Ask someone about the difference between linear and non-linear video editing and I think you may start to catch a glimpse of that shift.

When the computer and word processor were first introduced, there was not an immediate productivity increase over typewriters. It took time for users’ methods of processing the information to adapt and assimilate the new technology, even though they keyboard was essentially unchanged. The access to information (our own writing) in a new way altered the way we processed and created that information.

In the most modern era, critics of multitasking argue that accessing multiple sources of information simultaneous alters our method of processing that information (for the worse, or they wouldn’t be critics). They cite fMRIs and other scans indicating a physiological shift in information processing, stemming simply from a change in access.

It is difficult to accept the claim that new methods of accessing information have no effect on our processing of that information, regardless of your opinion of social media, social networking, and/or education. The dichotomy of content and delivery is hardly clear-cut. If it were, why should teachers mind students watching a movie in lieu of reading a book? This blurring is the very basis of “differentiated instruction,” an admission that all processing  paths are not equal in all students.

  • For the record, I agree with Mr. Pondiscio on many—if not most—points, especially with his concern that teachers spend too much time making any particular technology an end in and of itself. However, I think there is a very fine line to walk when a psychosocial moratorium is not possible. I’ll write more about modeling interactions with new tools, from e-mail to social media.