Learning In a World of Infinite Input

Input has become infinite while our individual output is still quite finite. What does this mean for teaching and learning in our schools?


“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge. This level of information is clearly impossible to handle by present means. Uncontrolled and unorganized information is no longer a resource in an information society, instead it becomes the enemy.”

Does that sound like something written recently on one of the many blogs dedicated to helping us manage the deluge of information? No – it was written in 1988 by John Naisbett in his book Megatrends. We’ve seen this coming for a long long time.

At the Games Learning & Society Conference I had the luck to sit down next to Professsor Angela McFarlane at lunch one day. She is the Head of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol in the UK and a leader at the Futurelab. She was very articulate about how we are “privileging” the wrong skills in school. What does this mean?

Parents want computers in schools and they know their kids should be learning new skills but they are reluctant to let go of the existing model of schooling because it is familiar. As a result we end up measuring things we no longer place value in. We keep awarding degrees and certificates for the antique skill of learning facts and being able to spit them back up on demand.

Why School Must Change

A recent study at Berkeley found that information – new information not digital copies – is growing at a rate of 66% per year.

“total production of new information in 2000 reached 1.5 exabytes. …that is about 37,000 times as much information as is in the entire holdings Library of Congress. For one year! Three years later the annual total yielded 3.5 exabytes. That yields a 66% rate of growth in information per year.”
“What is growing faster than 66% for decades — that is not information based? Economists peg physical production as growing at 3% a year in advanced countries, and maybe 7% a year in superstars like China. That means that information grows 10 times as rapidly as physical production.”

Pixyqueen_ASPLODE_by_JazzLizard.jpgAfter two years of working on a master’s degree the information available is 2.75 times what was available at the start (through the miracle of compounding). What exactly does a “Master’s” degree mean anymore? It used to mean that you had read, discussed, and internalized the canon of a subject area. You literally mastered it. This is impossible today.

The other side of this coin is equally dynamic. 25% of the searches on Google every day are brand new – we have not even started to reach the limits of what people want to know. Based on personal observation I would argue that peoples interests are expanding at a rate close to that of information itself. There are 120,000 new blogs created every day. The more information we have the more (collectively) we want to know.

Even if it were possible to absorb this much information what good would it do? We can’t afford to be blubbering information sponges – slaves to our email inbox or obsessively checking our RSS reader all day long. We bring meaning to our lives by acting on information. But despite the technology at our disposal our individual capacity for action has not increased at anything remotely close to rate of increase in information itself. Our output remains woefully human and finite.

What Should the Change Look Like?

The trick is to find the right information quickly that can support and inform the next action you need to take. So what should we be teaching? The core skills for success in this world are:
1. Goal setting
2. Searching
3. Filtering
4. Pattern recognition
5. Persuading
6. Perseverence
Someone please tell me the standardized test that is used to grade a school’s success that measures these skills? Please. Crickets. Chirp – chirp – chirp.

This is what Professor McFarlane meant when she said we privilege the wrong skills.

I will examine these skills in detail in a future post, but for now consider the following questions. What is missing from the list above? How long will it take to make this change happen? How long do we really have? What products and services might be created to support the teaching of these skills in our schools? What do we already do that we could amplify to support this shift in priorities?