One of the things I really like about David Weinberger is his interesting, unique vision of what is happening to knowledge because of what is happening on the Web. That and the fact that he pushes my own thinking so much. He’s a perfect example of that whole “the teachers we find are better than the ones we are given” potential of the Read/Write Web. He (and a few select others which I mention here often) challenges me in ways that are relevant to me, to my passions, leading me to new insights and connecting me to new teachers.
Another example of this is his latest essay “The New Is.” It’s a further evolution of what he articulated at his NECC keynote in Philadelphia earlier this month, and it’s a mind bender, at least for me. So this will be one of those scary “work through it in a blog post” type of posts. And maybe, the beginnings of a conversation.
Start with this:
We are entering the age where to understand something is to see how it isn’t what it is.
As opposed, I would guess, to an age where to understand something is to think we see what it is, right? An age in education when we teach by the “here it is and here is what it means” method based on a system of structured knowledge with absolute answers. An age in which, because we’ve had limited access to other voices and other sources, there is an urge for everyone to conform to traditional understandings.
But on the Web, Weinberg asserts, structure is a problem because very few ideas fit so neatly into the traditional schemes. Most ideas, most understandings are nuanced in ways that make them more personal rather than one size fits all. In fact, meaning and knowledge is evolving through millions of conversations and interactions that were not possible before, with different people “tagging” similar ideas in dissimilar ways, creating a messiness that he says is a sign of “successful order.”
We don’t need perfect knowledge in an age of knowledge abundance. We just need pretty good knowledge, and that’s something we don’t need perfect gatekeepers for. To the gatekeepers what looks like chaos and the degradation of learning to Netizens looks like an exponential increase in intelligence.
And who are the gatekeepers, you think? I can’t tell you how much angst this “exponential increase in intelligence” is causing in certain circles, and we’ve all heard it, I know. “It can’t be trusted.” “What authority does the source have?” “How do you know that?” All legitimate questions in certain circumstances. But questions whose acceptable answers are not changing, as of yet, with the new realities of information and knowledge.
And then there’s this, one of my favorite Weinberger riffs:
The difference in views occurs in part because the Net explodes the old view of intelligence as the containing of lots of knowledge. This container model is reflected in how we talk about documents: We say they have contents even though print is as 2-dimensional as a shadow. On the Net, documents ( pages ) get their value to a large degree not from what they contain but from what they point to.
I just love that concept, and I love the way it relates back to George Siemens and Barbara Ganley who see that not only are their texts not simply containers any longer, neither are their students. And isn’t that how we’ve thought about students, really, for a long time, ultimately as containers of the information we impart? But with the Web, they become much more than that, because, like pages and online texts, then can connect their own messy knowledge to the messy understandings of others and, in the process, exponentially increase their intelligence. I am so struck by how limiting I see the traditional classroom any more, the restrictive nature of it. (Much like what I think of paper anymore, btw.) So look at the last quote again and think students, not documents.
On the Net, [students] get their value to a large degree not from what they contain but from what they point to.
That’s a bit of a shift, huh?
And so what does all of this mean for instruction? I think he starts to paint that picture as well.
If you want to know about an idea, you could go to an encyclopedia and read what an expert says about it. Or you could find a blog that talks about it and start following the web of links. You’ll not just see multiple points of view, you’ll hear those points of view in conversation. That’s new in the world. The old dream of finding a single knowledge for the entire world, having knowledge be like reality, in other words, is dying rapidly. The connectedness of the Net has made it too clear that the world is not going to come to agreement and be able to write its single encyclopedia, covering everything we need to know without dissent. To understand now means to hear the multiplicity of meaning talked about across the world. The more of the world we get into the conversation, the more the world will mean.
And that then becomes the task, to get teachers and students to enter into the conversation, to get them connected (in more ways than one) to the idea that understanding and meaning and knowledge is no longer quite as easily defined, that we find them in negotiation and interaction, in the “continuousness of conversation” as he puts it.
How tough could that be?
John Pederson says
I just got more from that post than I did from an entire year of graduate education.
Dean R Shareski says
Weinberger definitely rattles some chains in traditional education. One thing that I thought of as I read your post and also watched his keynote from NECC was the idea of “good enough”. He used the beer example in his keynote stating that when you want beer, you usually are content with whatever is given. As long as it resembles beer, you’re happy.
My thought was about those educators who argue that we need to raise or hold onto high expectations and excellence. I think many of them would have difficulty with Weinbergers premise. I recognize that perhaps they aren’t speaking about the same things, but how do we accept the notion of “pretty good knowledge” and combine it with excellence. They seem contradictory. I haven’t been able to articulate how these can work together.
Will R. says
That’s a great point, Dean. I wonder that too. But I think what he’s thinking (if I’m allowed to do that) is that “pretty good knowledge” is all we can have these days, unlike the perfect knowledge that we doled out before. Perfect knowledge just doesn’t exist anymore…it never did, but we used to pretend that it did, I think. I don’t like the phrasing either…and I don’t think the beer comparison works. I mean if you’re thirsty, REALLY thirsty, any old beer will do. But if you need to know something, REALLY need to know something, any old answer will certainly NOT do. That’s not to say that in this time and place there is only one answer, but there’s no doubt we should be teaching (and employing) the skills that get us the best of the knoweledge that’s out there.