The main function of formal education – that systematized process of organizing masses of random data into something resembling knowledge – is teaching the skills of learning how to learn. Learning how to learn, of course, is very different from simply memorizing or otherwise ingesting tons of seemingly useless information. The sad truth is that many schools and many teachers at all levels have either lost sight of this difference or have never considered it.
In the 21st Century, information retrieval has become a remarkably easy process for anyone with access to the internet. Access to data has outstripped the machinery of traditional education. It is no longer critically important to memorize the Periodic Table or all of the essential speeches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. You can Google that. Data access alone does not constitute learning, by any definition. So, then, how do we learn how to learn?
If we wish to construct a model of a person’s formal education from kindergarten onward, we might want to build a framework, or grid, first. The grid would be a complex network of small branches flowing to bigger branches, with the greatest number clustering toward the upper end – the final chapters of the formal education. Let us call this grid Understanding.
Onto this grid, beginning with the earliest cognition, will be hung facts, truths, opinions, theories, and beliefs – let us call them Data – that will inform Understanding by providing the grist for the mill. As Data flow along the Grid of Understanding, they permeate and form ever increasingly sophisticated concepts, which we will call Synthesis. In combination, Data + Understanding + Synthesis = Knowledge.
Traditional learning techniques – reading, classroom discussion, taking notes, underlining sentient passages in a textbook, rereading first and last paragraphs of a chapter or an assignment – continue to have value in the IT Age. (Most learners have better recall when they have written facts down on paper or highlighted a passage in Dayglo yellow.)
Newer tools like use of online data bases and bibliographies, classroom whiteboards, instantaneous one-click word definitions, footnotes, and annotations on e readers, and countless other IT devices need to be fully accounted in the new “Learning How To Learn” bag of skills, as well. More than ever before, learning how to retrieve information is a greater asset than just “knowing lots of stuff.” There is more information at hand now than any student can hope to master and more than any teacher can deliver. The great teacher is one who has adapted to new realities, to the role change from keeper of knowledge to academic tour guide.
So, endless Data, synthesized on the Grid called Understanding, leads toward Knowledge. Accumulated Knowledge, marinated over time in the broth of the individual’s experience and value system, can, with proper seasoning, become Wisdom. The mechanics of learning in the modern World will continue to become more and more electronic; yet the institutions of formal education that still provide its structure need to assure that the teacher’s role in the new learning scheme remains more than tech support.