Four Essential Learning Skills for a World Inundated with Misinformation

by johnmccreery

Continuing a discussion on Systems Thinking World, responding to a question from Chad Green.
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“If we wish to avoid overwhelming students with information, why not help them to synthesize the processes that generate content in the first place?”

Good question. Walter’s system could help here — though, I must admit, I still find it a bit overelaborate. Off the top of my head, for what it is worth, I envision a three-stage curriculum: (1) Rapid learning —how to scan and extract what you need quickly; (2) Digging deep — exploring impressions from rapid learning in greater depth; and (3) Quality control — critically examining new information for relevance, accuracy, and validity. Students with these skill sets could then be encouraged to move on to (4) Getting creative — breaking established frames and rules to see what happens and returning recursively to (1),(2), and (3) to extract innovation from the crap in which it is always buried. (4) is the step at which you recognize that what you need is a better hole instead of a better bit.
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The last “bit” alludes to a parable that pops up now and again in marketing literature:

There once was a company that made the world’s finest drill bits. It worked hard to improve its bits and make sure that its offerings were, indeed, the best drill bits in the world.

It was put out of business by a laser company. What the customers wanted wasn’t drill bits. What the customers wanted was holes.

6 Comments to “Four Essential Learning Skills for a World Inundated with Misinformation”

  1. Yes. I think this would work really well. When good teachers do it, it works really well. For all of recorded history. So why don’t we do more of it? To answer that question, we’d have to look at whether the hole the customers want is square or round.

    I’ll add that because this approach requires a little intellectual flexibility and a democratic / anarchistic knowledge ethos, practitioners are not widely distributed and that in itself damps its propagation.

  2. Carl, I was, of course, thinking of you as I wrote this. I know that you do a super job of steps 2 and 3. What can you tell us about steps 1 and 4?

  3. Assuming intelligent creativity is what’s wanted, this is the money question. I have to admit it’s a hard one for me because I’ve been a 1, 4 guy my whole conscious life – I have no memory of getting that way. For me the hard stuff is in 2, 3.

    But I think it must be true that for 1, 4 to get working there has to be a big database to work from. Quick uptake is largely about re-cognition, and to make creative connections you have to have stuff to connect and reconfigure. So I think when people aren’t creative it’s at least in part that their worlds are too small (which is a danger of discipline all the way through to expertise). After that the same algorithms that create wordplay and other pattern-manipulation puzzling come into play, and those can probably be taught. I try to teach them by taking the same histories and spiraling through them with different questions, from different perspectives, with different agendas, and so on. Essentially 2, 3 with a 1, 4 bias. But I admit that for many of my students that remains ‘the thing Carl does’.

    I think it also must be important to think the world in dynamics rather than statics, relationships rather than objects. There has to be movement and flow; if everything just is what it is, creativity makes no sense – which is exactly the reaction creative people often get from non-creatives. Using the mobile in class seems to be helping some students grasp that orientation.

  4. It occurs to me from observation of students and colleagues that the database thing is sneaky important, in the sense that lots of folks don’t feel comfortable making any kind of leap with unknowns about. So in effect creativity is always ruled out because omniscience is the condition. How much do we need to know?

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about this article discussing the basic linguistic conditions of more complex / creative thinking. This is another of those concreteness things. If you don’t know how to construct a conditional it becomes really hard to do thought experiments, and then the costs of moving the mental furniture get really high.

  5. This old comment of yours about ethnographer Jean Briggs among the Inuit just came up in another context, John, and I thought it fit in nicely here as a practical but problematic way to get at 1 and 4:

    “One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.”

  6. Another oldie but goodie re the database:

    “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”

    Carl Ally, quoted in Roger von Oech (1990) A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Become Creative. p. 6

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