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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Suffocating in information

I hear and read a lot about information overload. I hear and read about kids not having filters or the requisite skills to make sense of their worlds. I hear and read about kids being addicted to technology. I hear and read about a world and society drowning in information.

I’d like to share a counter-perspective.

I think that kids at school are suffocating in information. They simply cannot get enough of it at school. It’s as if we adults are expecting our kids to learn with lungs while their gills flap and flutter in a morse code of desperation that we don’t understand and/or pointedly ignore.

To put it another way, information is bottle-necked at school through print and out modes containers of staffing and scheduling. Imagine a bottle of water. The stream of water that the bottle can accommodate pouring out at once might slake our adult thirst for information, but our kids need an ocean of information into which they can dive and from which they can drink in huge, slurping gulps that look somehow vulgar or excessive to us. We want to sip. We want the bottle to help us control the flow of information. Our kids want to live in information, and they don’t necessarily want to bottle it back up for us in quizzes, worksheets, or papers. They want to amass giant stores of information – some of it “academic,” some of it “social” – and then share it with networks that they help define – networks that in many cases provide larger and more authentic audience than even a class of 30 does.

Our convention forms of communication are too information poor for our kids to enjoy or make sense of – they seem arbitrary, random, and unconnected because we present information that way and ask for it to be returned to us that way by kids who are used to a seamless physical and virtual space of personal and collective meaning-making. No kid adept at navigating a social network or the open-world of a sandbox single-player video game or the communally generated world of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) can help thinking that school sucks by comparison because it asks so little of them, gives them too little information to consider fruitfully, and simultaneously tells them that they suck if they can’t hack it in an information impoverished institution.

I argue that our kids don’t have information processing problems or skills deficits – what they have is an inability to articulate how it is they live and learn because we prohibit the development of such a vocabulary at school to preserve adult control and custodianship of privilege and knowledge.

What have we done more of this year: helped kids articulate how they learn or judged them by our information-weak standards of learning and pro-academic behavior?

When our children run into difficulty and danger in our brave new world, it’s not because they are incapable of responding responsibly, but because we adults staunchly refuse to acknowledge the emergence of a post-print literacy, and therefore shirk our responsibilities as educators at public schools to form relevant relationships with kids, to provide them with authentic work (such as collaborating on a game-layer for a community-service social network), or to prepare them for citizenship in the world they are creating largely without us.

At best, we are deliberately leaving kids alone in a dark sea of information; at worst we are suffocating their minds.

To put it another way, our kids are crossing the ocean of information, or perhaps adapting to life in it, and we are staying behind on shore either snarling them in our nets or insisting that we can govern them from across the sea.

Learn about an emergent industry; understand the roles in it; attempt a jig-saw puzzle that approximates its work. We have to start learning about the world, too. We adults have to grow some gills before our lungs drown. Digital literacy and citizenship cannot be bottled up in reading, writing, and behaving just so on a screen.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


22 thoughts on “Suffocating in information

  1. Ok. This is a very smart post.

    I certainly agree that kids in school are drowning in information – information that is drawn from the complexity of the gestalt (the whole world) – and then reduced, compartmentalized, sequenced, and delivered – often via text streams. Bunderson (in 1981!) has suggested that ‘instruction has been trapped in a “lexical loop” perpetuated by print based media and methodology…the skill/knowledge of the expert [is translated] into a list of verbal abstractions…and given to students. The student is expected to translate the verbal abstraction back into the skills/knowledge of the expert.’

    This is all the more depressing in this era of rich and available media that can be ‘pulled’ by students rather than ‘pushed’ by the education system.

    I said in a previous post, “For years I have been frustrated with the school system’s inadvertent theft of a student’s locus of control. Before children enter school, they are full of questions and make much sense out of the rich complexity of authentic situations. Once a child enters kindergarten, the educational system begins to set the learning agenda.”

    You say, “we adults staunchly refuse to acknowledge the emergence of a post-print literacy”. I agree. On this note, I am tired of hearing people say, ‘It’s not about the tool (computer), it’s about the pedagogy’. This is, imho, a narrow view of the circumstance. I understand why they say it – because often adults focus on the ‘computer skills’ not the ‘content’. So in that context it makes sense.

    But, it clearly IS about the technologies too. They are media. They are ‘media with which to think’ in the same way that traditional literacies are borne out of technologies of letters, words, print and the printing press. McLuhan had it right – the medium is the message.

    The ‘post-print literacies’ must be acquired by all. It behooves us as educators to become literate. Dan Gillmor in Mediactive, says, “In a participatory culture, none of us is fully literate unless we are creating, not just consuming”.

    Thx Chad.

    Posted by peterskillen | February 24, 2011, 10:33 am
    • Peter, I am with you on this issue entirely. I’m not great at figuring out what to do yet, but I’m trying and I’m willing to be patient with myself and accommodating with my students until a better combination of expressive tools presents itself for my kids or is created by us in tandem.

      When I actually look at data filters today in fields like medicine and the digital humanities, I wish we had chosen another term. We’re actually adding information to data – we’re adding metadata and geo-data and visualizing data – as professionals in fields apart from public education, adults are not limiting data, they are helping increase it and developing the digital prostheses useful to layering it, not just parsing it.

      Maybe some quick-fire combination of Diigo, Evernote, Google Maps, and Tumblr would help kids do the same – I dunno. It’s definitely time to try something different, regardless.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 24, 2011, 6:52 pm
  2. Great stuff to think about Chad!

    It is lots of fun trying different things though! I think the kids benefit just from that excitement. So that’s, all in all, a plus!


    Posted by peterskillen | February 24, 2011, 8:33 pm
  3. Thanks for a refreshing perspective. Providing our students the opportunity to use that old fashioned trait called “common sense” does wonders for their abilities to further develop their critical thinking skills.

    I also applaud Peter’s comments: “… ‘media with which to think’ in the same way that traditional literacies are borne out of technologies of letters, words, print and the printing press. McLuhan had it right – the medium is the message.”

    I spent last weekend assessing my students’ book reports by listening to their oral posts on VoiceThread. With no handwriting issues, spelling, and grammar to interfere, I thoroughly enjoyed their message, provided in a new type of media. Bring on the digital tools which help all students showcase their thinking.

    Posted by Heather Durnin | February 24, 2011, 9:10 pm
    • Thanks, Heather – I wonder often why we assess such a narrow band of the signals kids can produce. I appreciate your willingness to assess in multiple ways!

      How does your attitude impact the way your organize your class, materials, and professional development?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 25, 2011, 7:09 am
  4. Chris,

    The physical organization in my gr. 7/8 class consists of students working in groups of 4 or 5’s as collaboration is encouraged. The virtual space of my classroom stretches beyond as my students work with others within our board, country and beyond. In fact, the book reports I referred to in the early comment were done in groups with students from another school who they’ve never met.
    My students have spent a lot of time this year learning about digital literacy as they connect in a year-long relationship with Clarence Fisher’s class in Manitoba. Between our classes, our students have learned how to write effective comments on each other’s blogs, they’ve written stories together using Google docs/chat, backchannel, and they’ve learned how to listen and present to students in various parts of North America using Skype. All the above require the development of digital literacy skills.
    The material I share with my students is shared with them through our class wiki or their Google account. In order to get to this place in my teaching, my PD has been self-directed. Yesterday however, I had the chance to share what my students are doing with other teachers in my board who are willing to link their students with others in a collaborate venture. I would like to think we are heading on a path of change within our board.
    Thanks for your interest!

    Posted by Heather Durnin | February 25, 2011, 7:50 am
    • You know, growing up a Hartford Whaler’s fan, I never anticipated how much I would love the Canadian education scene as I listened to the Canadian National Anthem before Leafs and Habs games.

      I think you have a great model and I am heartened to hear that your are able to share your work with other educators near and far. I struggle with exporting what we do to other local schools, and we are inconsistent as yet with our distance collaborations.

      I would love to Skype in as an observer some time, if that’s possible –

      Have students sought out or brought in authors and/or other mentors?

      Best regards,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 25, 2011, 9:33 am
  5. This post and the replies are so exciting to read. I’ve shared this with my pre-service English teachers to see if we can explore their take on this issue as they enter classrooms to observe and work with students “in the narrow band” of response modes. Maybe I can get them thinking about broader definitions of student response. You may want to see what I just watched this morning:

    Posted by Carol Mikoda | February 25, 2011, 8:47 am
    • Carol, I loved the Prezi – the locker video was cool. I appreciate the variety of ways films in which video was used for learning and engagement – thank you!

      How do you pre-service teachers do with atypical classrooms and approaches? I work with students from UVa from time to time and I’m always interested in how closely (or not) their idea of a classroom matches the one I had coming out of high school and undergraduate classes.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 25, 2011, 1:51 pm
  6. I agree 200%.

    The focus of schools right now is on expanding one’s knowledge base. Personally, I think the focus should be on higher order thinking–the tools necessary to expand one’s knowledge base when necessary.

    “Some people do not become thinkers simply because their memories are too good.” –Nietzsche

    Posted by Tyler | February 27, 2011, 1:08 pm
    • Yes, Tyler – right on. We should also help kids use those critical thinking skills to plan new learning, rather than ask them to continue polishing their background knowledge for more than a dozen years.

      What does this kind of work look like in your neck of the woods?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 3, 2011, 7:27 pm
      • Unfortunately, I cannot say that this type of education has yet hit Canada. I’ve heard of several courses that are supposedly embracing critical thinking, but I’ve found most of them to just be applied memorization because the problems involved become so repetitive.

        I’m hopeful that our education system will evolve, though. It has to in order to keep up with the real world. I’m hoping that perhaps change will arise out of a conference I’m helping to organize this coming Fall.

        Thanks for your response,

        Posted by Tyler | March 3, 2011, 7:38 pm
        • I hope you’ll consider posting something with us about the conference and its takeaways, Tyler – I am envious of the organizers’ skill sets here on the Coöp and eager to learn from examples –


          Posted by Chad Sansing | March 4, 2011, 9:32 am
  7. great post Chad. so spot on here:
    but our kids need an ocean of information into which they can dive and from which they can drink in huge, slurping gulps that look somehow vulgar or excessive to us.

    i’m reading Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. i thought his TED on it was enough. silly me. there’s so much i needed to hear from his book.
    when he talks about the mad cow protest in Seoul, where the teenage girls took over, he quotes Mimi Ito, and i’m going to blatantly quote it all here, it’s that huge:

    Their participation in the protests was grounded less in the concrete conditions of their everyday lives, and more in their solidarity with a shared media fandom… Although so much of what kids are doing online may look trivial and frivolous, what they are doing is building the capacity to connect, to communicate, and ultimately, to mobilize. From Pokemon to massive political protests, what’s distinctive about this historical moment and today’s rising generation is not only a distinct form of media expression, but how this expression is tied to social action.

    Shirky goes on to say:
    Digital tools were critical to coordinating human contact and real-world activity.. when communications tools are in new hands, they take on new characteristics.

    and earlier Shirky writes:
    During the protests in South Korea, though, media stopped being just a source of information and became a locus of coordination as well.
    The atomization of social life in the twentieth century left us so far removed from participatory culture that when it came back, we needed the phrase “participatory culture” to describe it.

    Tyler – your Nietzsche quote nails it. are we intoxicated by memory?
    are we intoxicated by memory? too drunk to see what we’re missing… what we’re, often unintentionally, keeping from our kids?
    we should detox, and fast.
    the ocean is amazing.

    Posted by monika hardy | March 2, 2011, 10:56 pm
    • Hey Monika,

      I agree. Personally, I think we need to switch the focus from “learning” all this information, to learning how to utilize the information that exists. The information is now readily available in the air around us through wireless internet, so isn’t it more important to learn how to utilize that information rather than to learn how to turn on one’s cell phone?


      Posted by Tyler | March 3, 2011, 12:34 am
  8. I want to say something, but I’m not able to articulate it quite yet.

    Maybe it’s enough to say that gatekeeping is a rusted industry about to break.

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 3, 2011, 7:40 pm
  9. Chad, coming home on a plane last night I read this Malcolm Gladwell piece on “How The Internet Gets Inside Us.”

    I know Gladwell’s in ill-repute right now for not understanding Twitter’s role in the Middle East, but just offering this quote from it:

    “One of the things that [Brockman’s recent collection of writings] on the Internet and the mind illustrates is that when people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s ‘waking dream,’ as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

    The odd thing is that this complaint, though deeply felt by our contemporaries…is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.”

    To your point, Gladwell says that our response to new technologies has always been to point to it as a source of fragmentation and chaos–we have deep a need to see our world as breaking up. As a cultural malaise, this is our most profound and persistent chorus.

    So we try to control the technology.

    What do you think?


    Posted by Kirsten | March 4, 2011, 1:28 pm
    • I like Dean Groom’s thinking here about the game-like quality of Twitter for some users. It’s an interesting counterpoint that argues services like Twitter can engage us in the flow of playing our online identities; rather then fragment our identities, social media and networked computers can help us hone and benefit from them. I’m a deeply introverted person who believes enough in his work and pursuing it that I use social media to focus my efforts and give myself voice. I don’t feel disassociated or fragmented in what I do here, for example.

      I know that other people feel differently about technology; I’ve heard many of the voices channeled in the article. I, most of all, want better schools for kids. Insomuch as any technology pushes otherwise like-minded people apart, it’s a red herring.

      I do think that school is much more like the Internet than a book; it’s designed to scatter students’ attention. When people complain that kids can’t pay attention anymore, I wonder that they ever could in a traditional school. If we want kids to pay attention at school, we should watch what they do, ask them what they think, and design something that favors deep engagement and project management over rote learning and scheduling.

      I do like a good dystopia; a fragmented world is necessary for other voices, other rooms.

      What do you think?

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 4, 2011, 2:30 pm
  10. i’m thinking about Michelle’s slideshare on humanity 4.0,
    esp starting with slide 66.
    humanity 4.0 is about conversation. rich, authentic conversation.

    tech wants that for us. (Kelly)
    it’s networking us. it’s offering us unlimited resources, so that we can now spend our energy on pruning out what matters most. to us. to our community.
    (i’ve been reading a lot of Pesce lately )

    Tyler – you wrote – The information is now readily available in the air around us through wireless internet, so isn’t it more important to learn how to utilize that information rather than to learn how to turn on one’s cell phone?

    it’s in us – no? (Shirky’s cognitive surplus)
    so learning how to use it means – community.
    learning how to commune, to converse, to share. how can we make that global coffee house?

    i think we are approaching a dimensionality in our conversations we’ve not yet experienced. one where we not only come together per passion, but also in grace and deep respect. one where more can be said, because in our new found security of intimate community, we spend less time with defense. (… ) so more can be understood. one where less needs to be said, because more is understood. (… )

    that means – yes Chad – gatekeeping is a rusted industry about to break.
    ready to give us back.
    back to humanity. back to each other.
    i love how suffocation is driving us to zoom out,
    and smell the tulips.

    this is such an incredibly exciting time..

    will conversation now trump and change everything?
    will the work – we used to go to from 9-5 – to get our monetary reward…
    become the work of being a part of something? a part of a conversation? a part of a community?
    (Lisa Gansky’s Mesh) will transparency become our currency? do we really not need more resources? can we just be more resourceful? especially in regard to people?
    is schooling the world a film, a global voice, encouraging us to lay off intoxicating other countries? or is it the global voice within us, helping us to see and detox our own intoxication?

    i’m thinking so. i’m hoping so.
    i’m banking on it.

    Posted by monika hardy | March 6, 2011, 6:58 pm


  1. Pingback: connect ed « Cooperative Catalyst - March 20, 2011

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