Facts are so last century. In the Internet-dominated world, networked facts have pretty much taken over. The old-fashioned view of the fact is that it is an irreducible atom of knowledge. The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.
The way information is organised on the Web means that everything is connected and it is only as a result of the links between elements of information that facts come into being.
This is one of the points that David Weinberger puts across in his new book, Too Big to Know, launched yesterday in the US (not out in the UK til 19th January). Weinberger calls these configurations of linked data, in which two ideas are connected by a relationship, ‘triples’. In an interview given to Thomas Rogers for Salon, Weinberger elaborates:
OK, so, if the triple is “Edmonton is in Canada,” ideally each of those should link to some other spot on the Web that explains exactly which Edmonton, because there’s probably more than one, along with which Canada (though there’s probably only one). And “is in” is a very ambiguous statement, so you would point to some vocabulary that defines it for geography. Each of these little facts is designed not only to be linked up by computers, but in itself consists of links. It’s a very different idea than that facts are bricks that lay a firm foundation. The old metaphor for knowledge was architectural and archaeological: foundations, bricks. Now we have clouds.
Now, I think I get this, and when we think about the ubiquity of the hyperlink, it’s pretty clear that Weinberger is absolutely right. But, even before the Internet, information was still linked, and it was still necessary to reference one idea in order to construct a basis for another. Aristotle, Darwin and Newton all did it. It was just a slower process. You had to have located and read the relevant source, be it a book, paper or article and access to these things was far more restricted than it is now. But, the basic principle was the same. I think it’s reasonable to say that Weinberger’s point about metaphors rings true not because of a fundamental shift in what facts are, but rather that the Internet age has speeded everything up and made access to data (almost) universally accessible.
Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles.
The title of the book, Too Big To Know, implies that the volume of information we now have access to could be leading to a kind of overload, and there is a genuinely important (and unanswered) question about the impact of this on our brains. Are we getting cleverer or stupider as a result? Our burgeoning taste for punchy, sound-bitten data is obvious – if you can’t express an important idea in 140 characters, you’ll struggle to be listened to in some circles. Indeed, this review of Weinberger’s book on Inc.com is designed to give you the top line messages in about the time it takes to write a tweet. And, this very blog post indicates that I’m clearly as much as sucker for this as anyone.
Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that Weinberger expresses some important ideas, not least that it isn’t individual cleverness that really matters, but the collective cleverness of the networks in which we operate. In his interview for Salon he says:
With the new medium of knowledge — the Internet — knowledge not only takes on properties of that medium but also lives at the level of the network. So rather than simply trying to cultivate smart people, we also need to be looking above the level of the individual to the network in which he or she is embedded to see where knowledge lives.
Events, or specifically lectures, are probably the resource for which the RSA is best known. Whether it is the incredible collection of world leading speakers we have coming to John Adam Street; the innovative Animate series; or the range of events that take place outside London, as a Society we put together some incredible lectures. In our Networks team we are focussed on the active delivery of the Fellowship’s potential, and events and lectures offer one of the key means by which we can stimulate this activity.
Last week I attended the 2011 Angus Millar Lecture in Edinburgh. A staple of the RSA calendar in Scotland, supported by the legacy of a Scottish Fellow and the ongoing work of his family, it is always a well attended event, bring together a disparate audience. This year was no different. Chaired by our very own Matthew Taylor, it saw noted science writer Matt Ridley give a very provocative talk on the concept of Scientific Heresy. Taking the sensitive topic of climate change as his subject, he explored some of the ways in which heresy can turn out to be true, and truths (which should be viewed sceptically in science anyway) can be found to be empty. The questions came thick and fast, with debate continuing long after the event had finished, attendees eagerly questioning the ideas expressed.
But is there a point to lectures such as this? This may seem a rhetorical question, however given the range of organisations producing lectures at any given time, it could be argued that the RSA could focus its resources elsewhere. Lectures can be stimulating at the time, however it is action that is required if we are going to change the world for the better.
We are questioning creatures, animals preoccupied with the questions Why and How, and RSA lectures and events offer us a way to engage in this drive.
I believe that our lectures and events represent one of the key ways in which the RSA gives to society. They are watched and discussed across the world, as many as possible freely accessible from our website, with over 50 million viewers having engaged with them to date. Of course this requires access to the internet, yet it does offer opportunities for engaging with knowledge that might otherwise be unavailable. We do not charge fees and we do not limit the information – rather we offer it as a gift to the rest of humanity. And when attendees are able to make it to an event in person, they can share in the company of their fellow humans as we question the world around us.
And that is the key point – the RSA is fundamentally a human organisation, one focussed on the core strengths and drives of our species. We are questioning creatures, animals preoccupied with the questions Why and How, and RSA lectures and events offer us a way to engage in this drive.
So take a browse through our collection of lectures and conferences – you will be driven to broaden your own understanding by questioning the world around you, engaging in that most human of acts.
Donald Rumsfeld was widely mocked when he talked about “known unknowns”. However, as is often the way with these things, the phrase has now taken on a life of its own. People now use various versions of this little formulation to explain that they don’t know everything that they don’t know but that they do know some of the things that they don’t know. You know?
I was thinking about Rumsfeld’s aphorisms when I was at a meeting yesterday talking about dementia and connected communities. We were particularly looking at the question of how best to combat the stigma associated with dementia.
A key part of the Government’s National Dementia Strategy is early diagnosis of dementia. There are many benefits to this approach but one of the problems is that with diagnosis comes stigma. People with dementia can lead fulfilling lives but I think I am right in saying that despite many improvements in treatment, the condition is still progressive and incurable.
This adds up to diagnosis potentially being both a label and a sentence, from the point of view of the person being diagnosed with dementia.
This raises the question; is it better not to know?
This raises the question; is it better not to know? Or to not know that you don’t know?
Similarly, part of the focus of the RSA’s Connected Communities project is researching ways of supporting communities, particularly in deprived areas, to be more engaged in the decisions that affect their local area.
At the moment a whole series of decisions are being made about how public services will be delivered in these areas. From one point of view it would make logical sense for us to argue that people should be more engaged in decisions around cuts and service re-design. However, I am not sure if that is right.
The various branches of government are currently offering people a variety of ways in which they can engage with the decision making process. These including consultations, focus groups and public meetings and so on and so on.
The experience of the people taking part in the engagement mechanisms will almost certainly be a negative one. People will learn more about the threats to various services and will be asked which cuts they most support. It would not be surprising if people’s reaction to this type of engagement was anger, anxiety or frustration. I met someone recently who told me that she turns the TV off whenever she sees politicians because it makes her feel anxious.
This raises the question; is it better not to know? Or to not know that you don’t know?
Catching up with a summer issue of the New York Review of Books, I was enthralled by Michael Pollan’s article ‘The Food Movement, Rising’ about the new food movement(s) and the intersection with business, government and society. The article is worth reading in itself, but it was one particular quote, from Janet Flammang’s new book, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society, that struck me most:
“Food is apprehended through the sense of touch, smell and taste, which rank lower on the hierarchy of sense than sight and hearing, which are typically thought to give rise to knowledge.”
Flammang’s book is, of course, about much more than how we experience food, but I am intrigued by the sensory notion she touches on. Of course, Aristotle’s classical hierarchy of the senses is widely accepted (in order: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) but the idea that really only two of our ‘big five’ and our estimated total 9-21 senses are considered on the path to knowledge and reason is peculiar. With so many senses at our disposal, we have historically relied on only sight and hearing to advance our minds.
Based on Fleming’s VARK Model, much of education divides pupils into visual learners or audible learners, based on an increased ability to understand through sight or hearing, respectively. Fleming’s Model also highlights two other types of learning styles: reading/writing-preference learners and kinesthetic (tactile) learners, where the latter relies on touching, moving and doing activities. I am intrigued, however, that despite widely accepted models of various learning styles, the number of senses involved in traditional education is limited. There would seem to be huge untapped potential in thinking more holistically about involving all our senses, perhaps by first limiting some to heighten others and see what happens.
At present, there are very few fields of education, or indeed, jobs that rely more on senses other than sight and hearing. Training to become a chef or a sommelier are perhaps the most obvious, where taste and smell are paramount, followed by sight (I’ve not heard of any sommeliers listening to how a wine pours or sips, but you never know…). And there we return to Flammang’s argument – the sense of smell, touch and taste are generally perceived to be ‘of the body’ and the body tends to symbolise our animal tendencies. Sight and hearing are considered above bodily senses because they represent our ability as civilised beings to be ‘of the mind’.
Those without sight and/or hearing have found countless of ways to understand and grasp concepts and the world around them. Braille relies on the sense of touch in lieu of sight and sign language relies on sight in lieu of hearing, but there must be more than just these… Surely we haven’t unearthed all ways of communicating and learning to date? What if a newly conceived version of Braille didn’t just allow the blind to read words and language, but it displayed entire concepts through sensory maps and diagrams?
So what if Aristotle was wrong? (Oh no, did I really just say that?) What if our other senses haven’t played a bigger role in advancing our wisdom not because they really rank lower than sight and hearing, but because we haven’t placed as much emphasis and value on using them? We know that sensory deprivation of one sense can lead to a heightened awareness and understanding through the other senses, so what would happen if we put more effort into using our sense of smell, taste, touch, time, balance, temperature, et al and learning through them?
It would seem that there is a huge opportunity here for an intersection between design, which already relies heavily on an increased understanding of all the senses, education, biology, psychology and a number of other fields. By just thinking about how we could design new ways of learning a range of subjects and concepts through senses other than just sight and hearing, we will open up a range of possibilities for greater human understanding and wisdom.
I personally have done some design work on translating visual concepts into tangible, tactile ones, but I want to go further. Can we learn philosophy through smell? Can we learn a language through touch? Can we learn mathematics through balance? Perhaps not, but I think there is something there… For example, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary to think that we might be able to learn geometry through touch, biology though temperature, or even geography through direction…
A sublime article at the Guardian by Tony Judt who recently died after a long and public battle with motor neuron disease. He was writing about words being all we really have, and expressed himself beautifully. For instance:
“When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.”
“In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts – the view from inside is as rich as ever – but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate. The vocal muscle, for 60 years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”
I read this article on the same day that I stumbled upon “Life without language” – an extended blog at neuroanthropology.net which explores ‘encultered cognition’. Language is much more than words, but does require some form of symbol system, including sign language.
The blog on language features an extraordinary story conveyed by Susan Schaller about her attempts to teach a profoundly deaf person in Idaho who grew up without any form of symbol system to communicate. Her goal was not to teach language, but to convey the very idea of language, and at the end of several weeks of sustained effort, she finally made a breakthrough:
“And then he started-it was the most emotional moment with another human being, I think, in my life so that even now, after all these years, I’m choking up [pauses]-he started pointing to everything in the room, and this is amazing to me! I’ve thought about this for years. It’s not having language that separates us from other animals, it’s because we love it! All of a sudden, this twenty-seven-year-old man-who, of course, had seen a wall and a door and a window before-started pointing to everything. He pointed to the table. He wanted me to sign table. He wanted the symbol. He wanted the name for table. And he wanted the symbol, the sign, for window.”
“The amazing thing is that the look on his face was as if he had never seen a window before. The window became a different thing with a symbol attached to it. But it’s not just a symbol. It’s a shared symbol. He can say “window” to someone else tomorrow who he hasn’t even met yet! And they will know what a window is. There’s something magical that happens between humans and symbols and the sharing of symbols.”
We need our symbols, and words are some of the most sophisticated symbols we have. By reflecting on what it might be like to lose the ability to speak, or not to even understand what language is, and is for, we can remind ourselves that words are rarely ‘just words’, and that it is incumbent on us to use them well.
I finished Guy Claxton’s new book – What’s the point of school? a couple of days ago, just in time to chair a panel debate yesterday at the RSAat which he was the main speaker (the audio will be on the RSA site in the next few day).
This past few weeks’ convulsions in the banking system have illustrated that the modern world is full challenge and uncertainty, as well as opportunity. Against this backdrop, Guy argues convincingly that if the primary job of education is to prepare young people to thrive in that world, then practitioners, parents, and the public at large need to think again about school and how it is practiced. It is perverse to watch the effects ripple out from a breaking economic system so complex that none know how to fix it, and then to keep our thinking about school stuck in the old ‘dead metaphors’ of the monastery or the factory.
To make the change we need, Guy says we need to focus less on the reverence and passivity to authoritative knowledge implied in these old ways of thinking, and more on learning and the processes which awaken a desire and capability to learn in everyone.
At the panel, there was a dangerous outbreak of consensus in the room.
That was until one important point of doubt was raised by Dylan William, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education. He picked up a point similar to the one I raised in my previous post about knowledge and subject disciplines. Dylan asked the audience to close their eyes and picture the London Eye. He then asked for suggestions about how many spokes it had. The answers ranged from four to two hundred.
Dylan then cheerfully announced that he hadn’t a clue either, but what was interesting is that trained mathematicians always gave an answer that was a multiple of four. They are, he says, incapable of suggesting it might be thirty-seven, or an equally random or odd number. Meanwhile, historians would probably be off looking for a source of bias to the question.
His point being that a discipline like maths can profoundly shape the way we see the world. More than collections of information, these bodies of knowledge, theoretical frameworks, skills mould our minds, our intuition and the ways tend to think.
More than ever we will need these disciplines to lead us intuitively to the important, reliable knowledge we need in an ever more complex world. In a media age where so many can amplify their voice, they can tell us what kinds of answers to our questions we should be picking out in the cacophony.
Again I was left asking questions we don’t seem to have good answers for just yet. In a future which rightly emphasises generic competences and habits of mind, what is the role of such subject disciplines? How do we make sure we lead the next generation to the point that the young student in class today is an amazing all-round, lifelong learner, but can also specialise and be a physicist if that is what she wants?
I look forward to carrying on this conversation here, and at future RSA events.
As we get to the end of the party conference season, it is clear that the Conservative’s message of increasing schools freedoms and championing of the Swedish system is beginning to resonate with teachers.
There is a second half to their message which gets less coverage, but is of just as much importance. I sat on a panel with Nick Gibb, Shadow Minister for Schools at a Conservative Party fringe event held by the New Statesman, and supported by Edge. Nick argued passionately that we needed to ensure an academic curriculum for all, and to counter the progressive ideology he perceived as driving knowledge out of the curriculum in favour of, amongst other things, teaching ‘soft skills’.
I was there advocating the approach of the RSA’s Opening Minds curriculum which is now used by over 200 schools to explicitly teach a range of competences around such things as learning, and relating to people. The RSA remain committed to the idea that schooling must change if it is to be relevant to the lives of students and the challenges we face – for a quick overview, check out the first paragraphs of the RSA Charter for Education in the 21st Century (and please do sign up!)
I must admit, I wasn’t the most popular guy in the room, which is a shame as I was trying to sound a conciliatory note.
Nick has a point. Progressives must find a better response to the problem of knowledge. Up to now, many have argued that in a connected world where knowledge is generated and spread so quickly, it is useless to emphasise traditional subject knowledge and disciplines. By the time students leave school the world will have moved on, so what good would it do them to have learned this stuff? Better instead to teach the skills so they can run to keep up.
Well, sort of. This kind of thinking must be tempered by the observation that the main theoretical frameworks, the core ideas and skills within a subject discipline don’t change quite as fast as progressive rhetoric has asserted.
That doesn’t mean that progressives have been wrong to emphasise the importance of a more learner centred approach, taking account of student voice about what and how they wish to learn, and of engaging students by immersing them in practical and experiential learning. Quite the opposite. The OECD reported just a few weeks ago that, going by international comparison, our top-end students do very well academically. Where the UK falls down is with its middle and low performing students who go through the motions of testing but don’t appear to learn a lot, and drop out early.
This indicates schools, who have had to push a content-heavy, test-focussed curriculum taught in a traditional didactic fashion, have struggled to respond to the needs of many students.
We need to move this debate on.
- Ian McGimpsey
It’s the sort of question that, by virtue of being big, broad and endlessly contestible, is always enjoyable to explore and but impossible to fully answer.
Michael’s focus was on knowledge and the curriculum. In particular he made a distinction between everyday experience, and curriculum knowledge. He argued the latter is powerful knowledge – it relies much less on context to be of use, and importantly takes students beyond their own experience. It’s the kind of knowledge that helps people interpret, understand and ultimately change the world around them, and their lives.
But these are also the difficult, disciplined, coherent bodies of knowledge and their role is being challenged by recent educational innovations, changes to the Key Stage 3 curriculum, and Diplomas.
Ultimately Michael’s warning was that by changing curricula to emphasise the experience of the learner we could actually deny young people the chance to acquire powerful knowledge. We would leave them stuck in same situation they were in before they engaged in learning.
The debate in the hall afterwards, to my mind, misinterpreted him – often inferring (wrongly, I think) that a conservative idea about the process of teaching was also being advocated. One audience member went as far as describing him as a dinosaur!
I think there is an important implication for social justice here, which those concered with innovation in the curriculum would do well to consider carefully, and must balance with the challenges of relevance and enagement.