The Reflective Educator

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The Myth of Exponential Time?

George Haines has constructed an interesting argument refuting the idea that because we live in exponential times that we need to change how our schools operate.

George says:

Last year Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a big splash by telling us that more information is created every two days than was created from the dawn of time until 2003. This is an alarming find, even if the numbers are fudged quite a bit. The quote wasn’t aimed at educators, but many in the EdTech community took this quote and ran with it. The message Schmidt delivered fit very neatly into the narrative many radical educators subscribe to– that teaching specific factual knowledge is "20th century" and we should be teaching "how to find knowledge" in real time or whatever.

It doesn’t take an expert critical thinker to see the huge hole in this line of reasoning. The reason this is a somewhat meaningless factoid is that there has always been more knowledge in the world than we could possibly teach to students. I can remember sitting in the library on SUNY Stony Brook’s campus and looking around at the over-stuffed shelves of books on just one bookshelf on one floor and thinking "I will never be able to read even a respectable fraction of the books in here."

My response was:

George, I do have one observation that I would like to make and we’ll see if it pokes a hole in your argument or not.

Things we agree upon:

There has always been more knowledge available to know than what can possibly be taught to kids in schools.

Someone needs to select a subset of the available knowledge to show to kids. Kids cannot possibly become completely self-directed. I would like to see much more self-direction than currently occurs, but I don’t see kids as being able to learn how to read, or even adopt most critical thinking skills without a lot of interaction and support from adults.

Things that we do not agree upon:

It will always be possible for a small team of educators to choose the best possible subset of skills or content for our students to learn, using our current systems of determining curriculum goals. 

The process of curriculum construction is linear. A bunch of people get together, they look at what is available to be known, they might examine market trends, read some research about future predictions, and then they carefully select a subset of that total knowledge to share with kids. The rate of change of the subset of knowledge is directly dependent on how many people are examining the curriculum. Mathematically, it is a linear function. While much of this base knowledge remains constant, some of it must change.

If you buy the argument that the total amount of knowledge is increasing exponentially, then you must see that there is a serious problem here. An exponential amount of knowledge cannot be effectively processed using a linear method! 

This has already resulted, in my opinion, of some of what we are teaching kids, particularly in math and science, to be largely irrelevant. Why do we spend so much time teaching algebra when even professional mathematicians hardly do any algebra at all? If our objective is to teach logical thinking skills, that could be just as effectively done using computer programming skills which are vastly more important in even today’s economy and society than algebra is.

 

 

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