How Should We Learn?


Image Credits: Paul Falardeau (opens in a new window) / Flickr (opens in a new window) under a CC BY-ND 2.0 (opens in a new window) license.

Ignorance has been a fait accompli throughout the history of human society. There was never enough information about the world and how it functions, and even when we had it, few people had access. Whole branches of knowledge could be lost or simply stagnate, like much of science and mathematics in the European Dark Ages.

The internet changed all that. Data is everywhere, and knowledge is accessible on almost any subject imaginable with just a few clicks. Suddenly, we went from people ignorant of our own ignorance to content consumers struggling to keep up with the information all around us.

We will never stop being the deer in the headlights of knowledge. We shouldn’t celebrate ignorance, but neither can we cure it. Instead, students – hopefully aided someday by a new generation of education startups – need to learn how to navigate in a world where the frontier of knowledge is rapidly expanding and dynamic. We need to inculcate purpose-driven learning and move away from a model of slurping up all the data in the world.

Cancel The Deluge

When pundits describe data in the 21st century, they often resort to the flood metaphor, describing how we are “inundated” or “awash” with data. It is true that the internet has given us almost unlimited and practically free access to the sum of all human knowledge in a way never before seen in history.

The flood metaphor breaks down pretty quickly though upon deeper inspection. Data doesn’t just rush flow by us as we struggle to stay anchored above the deluge. Rather, we have built sophisticated tools to filter through that data and find the pieces that we are most interested in.

Yet, we still feel so overwhelmed by all of this. We are so concerned about our next email or text message that we have to buy special devices for our wrists just to make sure we aren’t falling behind. It’s no better at work, where a majority of executives feel completely powerless to handle the roaring current of data flowing in (I’m metaphorically guilty now).

The challenge is that most of us aren’t actually that good at learning. Sure, we can seek out facts, read news articles and tweets, and analyze tough problems. The software industry in particular is filled with autodidacts who can learn both the higher-level architecture of a massive computer system and the extremely nuanced implementation details required to run it. Data is abundant, and we can consume all of it given enough time.

Data is not knowledge however, and knowledge is not wisdom.

I am reminded of one of my “friends”* who years ago used to constantly click on the random article button on Wikipedia and ingest the articles as quickly as possible. He was considered smart by many people, even brilliant by some who marveled at the level of his know-how. In the end, that data was superficial, enough to keep a conversation going with a specialist but without the ability to fully engage on a topic.

We can consume all the facts in the world and still not comprehend what is really going on. The rise of explanatory journalism – pushed aggressively by Vox and several other internet publications – is a partial antidote to this problem. However, we are only moving from data to knowledge, and we still haven’t found wisdom.

The Ignorance Gap

One of my professors once described education as a fraction. The numerator is the knowledge we know about the world, and the denominator is our understanding about all of the knowledge that exists in the world. He argued that grade school equally expanded the numerator and denominator, and that college expanded the numerator at a slightly faster clip, giving everyone confidence.

The punch line was that getting a doctorate degree would only expand the denominator, which is why after five or more additional years at a university, people feel dumber than when they first started.

One reason we feel overwhelmed by all of this data is that we suddenly know how much we don’t know about the world. Our collective denominators have expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, without a concomitant increase in our own base of knowledge. We are constantly being confronted with stories we know nothing about, in countries we weren’t even truly aware existed.

We have to accept our present condition: we will always be more ignorant than knowledgeable about the world. Our societies are too complicated and the human lifespan is too short to ever hope to try to bridge that gulf.

Instead, we need to accept ignorance and handle it graciously. That doesn’t mean we should revel in our ignorance, but we shouldn’t be bothered when we don’t know the latest trend or some news story, nor should we judge others as “stupid” if they don’t know some factoid. There is a fear that we will enter a conversation not being completely up-to-date, but what is the point of a conversation if all we are exchanging are the facts we already know?

Wisdom comes when we increase both our numerators and our denominators. We need to both know what we know and as much as possible about what we don’t.

How Should We Learn?

We have had an explosion of learning products published online, whether sites like Wikipedia that offer a huge library of content for consumption or MOOCs like Udacity and Coursera that have more interactivity built in. We can learn about almost any subject imaginable today, and of course, get the details and data that the internet always offers.

Yet, these companies have barely started to build platforms for purpose-driven learning. In fact, the rhetoric around online education has focused so much on skills, credentials, and mechanisms of accountability that we have mostly neglected building up the more fundamental skill of simply learning what information is invaluable, merely valuable, and useless in a field.

We need to develop thinkers, not information processors. That’s incredibly hard in a world where students want instantly useful skills that are going to be worth a premium in industry. Just look at all of the coding education startups – there is far more coverage of CSS gradients than algorithms in many of these curriculums. Yet that deeper material is precisely what will differentiate students as thoughtful developers.

We do students a disservice when we only focus on that numerator of knowledge they know rather than that denominator of knowledge they are aware of exists. Yes, we want students to know how to process an HTML form, or to run a regression. But we also want them to become independent learners, adults who know when they need help, and how they might seek out the answers they are looking for.

Two weeks ago, I asked why the university is still here. The answer really comes down to its ability to teach students both knowledge and wisdom. There is no reason this can’t be done online or through books, but so far it hasn’t. It remains one of the largest opportunities in the edtech learning space available to entrepreneurs today.

People can be incredibly smart, even brilliant sometimes, and yet still be bad at deep learning. The internet has given us this omniscience that we have never had before, and we suddenly have this ability to see all of the details that we don’t know about. We need to inculcate the skills to navigate that world, handle ambiguity and ignorance, and become more purpose-driven learners.

*Note: May actually be me.

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