Our generation is the last of its kind. I was born in 1993 and growing up, I went to grade school, like every other child. All through elementary school, the only true source of information were textbooks. I remember going to the library in order to find books on topics I was going to research. Now, kids of all ages and adults have the ability to use search engines in order to acquire the information that’s needed. I’m referring to ‘search engines’ and not the internet or Google mostly because both of these things have turned into bigger commodities than just providing information. I want to specifically look at the conflict between learning in today’s society with the ability to obtain any bit of information imaginable through a search engine.
In Marshall McLuhan’s book, The Medium is the Massage, one of the topics discussed is the relationship between media and the medium through which it is presented. Another way to think about it, according to McLuhan, is the battle between the old environment and the new technology. This dispute can be seen between learning in the modern-day classroom and this relatively new ability to utilize a search engine for information.
In elementary and high school we are taught facts, formulas and the application of these lessons. Now that there is a plethora of information, more information available than we will ever use, what in the curriculum is obsolete? Is it important to memorize every capital of each US state, like I was required to do elementary school? Is memorization itself now nearly obsolete? Why spend hours in and out of the classroom committing to memory what you can search and find in less than a second? How can we adjust the curriculum (teaching environment) to this new form of acquiring instantaneous information (medium)?
This conflict between the classroom and the ability to ‘search’ needs to be recognized by teachers. Educators must now focus on teaching students about processes of applying information, problem solving and collaborating (1). The emphasis in school for the 21st century student is no longer about learning new information, but learning how to use information. Having the information, such as mathematical formulas or the history of Constantinople, is not the issue, like it may have been 15 years ago. There is little use for this sort of information unless it is taught to students how to apply new aged media to real-life solutions.
This brings up the issue of intellect. Intelligence is traditionally recognized by ‘knowing’ a lot. Today, what does that mean? Anyone with an electronic device from 2003 and a hand can know everything about anything. If students are provided with the tools to properly apply this ability, then I think the new standard for intelligence is bound to change. We are living in a fast-paced world and it will become ever-more important to learn the skills of improv and problem-solving. A key benchmark in education in our current era will be whether or not students can draw on lots of different types of information and bring them together to work out a solution, to gain a new perspective on a situation or to develop our knowledge of something (1). So in a sense, we are not getting less smart, just a different smart.
(1) Joanne Orlando, The Washington Post, “Technology is ruining our memory. Here’s why that doesn’t matter.”