I used to hate having to memorize the state capitals in school. It drove me crazy that time was spent on this. I was sure there was a place to look it up and so training my mind to regurgitate that the capital of New Hampshire is Concord seemed like a waste of time and energy. But that was the Age of Memorization, where getting people to remember things was the primary goal of education. In Donald Clark’s wonderful series on learning theorists a lot of the work described centered around memory. We now live in the Post Memorization age. We have the whole of human knowledge available on a device in our pocket. It is no longer relevant to learn how to memorize the state capitals. Even so, there are still plenty of discussions on the blogosphere about how to get your students to remember your content.
If memorization is no longer the focus of providing learning experiences, what is it that we are doing? If anything can be Googled, what do people need to learn? On #lrnchat, the weekly learning professional’s discussion on Twitter, my answer to questions like this is often “Context, Context. Context.” Information like the state capital of New Hampshire doesn’t exist separate from its layers of context. Why are there state governments in the American system? What is done in a State Capital? How are State Capitals chosen? And most importantly, what is the value of the information: how can you use it? This building of meaning around information can be a powerful capability to learn. Rather than pouring information into someone else’s head, this can be a collaborative process between student and teacher. In fact, these old hierarchical distinctions are blurring and may eventually melt away.
This works in a very practical sense. Even though all the information that you would ever want is available to you, you still need to find it and make use of it. Understanding the context of information is necessary for Googling it. You need to select effective search words and then discern which of the thousands of results to explore. It is an iterative process of narrowing down the context of the domain you are researching. Once you have found the information it is now your responsibility for judging its “truthiness.” In the past you relied on your teacher to provide reliable information (with varying degrees of success: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lies_My_Teacher_Told_Me). You are on your own with an almost infinite source of information that is open to anyone with any agenda to add to. Understanding the context of information is your best tool for critically reviewing what you find. Stephen Downes provides an overview of these skills in this article.)
Context provides a framework to learn more things, to learn them faster and most importantly to be selective about what needs to be learned. I choose to explore ideas with more value than the what is the capital of New Hampshire.