Saturday, March 10, 2012

Information Skills in Education

Warning: This post is unsupported by any data and is entirely reflective of my opinion.

At our last North Van Pac general meeting the topic of discussion was PAC perspectives on Information Technology in Schools. Amongst the discussion of specific technology options, fund-raising, tech support, and teacher enthusiasm two big concerns were raised; the need to establish strong behavioural norms for using IT and the need for students to learn the critical thinking skills required to make sense of today's information overload.

These last two issues, behaviour and critical thinking were, in my opinion, the most important ones raised because they are about how students and teachers use the tools rather than the tools themselves. The tools changes but the challenges around their use do not and we have to help kids learn to use the tools appropriately.

This past week's rhetoric around education in BC showcased the need to develop those critical thinking skills, to help all involved sort the information from the positions taken.

The strike and impending legislation has made this a big week for education in the news, a lot of issues have been raised and positions taken and it gets very hard to make sense of it all. Making it difficult is that everyone is right, and of course everyone is wrong. As with most issues the answer is likely somewhere between the extremes presented by the interested parties.

  • Schools could use more funding but funding is limited
  • Schools could do more and provide more choices but most students receive a very good education in areas they are interested in from dedicated and skilled educators in BC. 
  • There are many classrooms that are over-crowded and have poor composition but most aren't, otherwise the average couldn't be met.
  • Teachers should be compensated for the real work they do and/or provided resources so they don't have to do uncompensated work, but they should also be rewarded for teaching excellence not just activity.
  • Many parents send their children to schools outside the North Vancouver public schools, but most do it for natural reasons beyond the control of the school system.

With so many groups providing so much conflicting information what are people to believe and how can we make sense of it all. What is and what is not reliable information, when is the authors position distorting or selecting the facts to make a point.

If they aren't already, our kids are going to be buried in this tide of information and opinion and as parents and educators we need to teach our kids the critical skills needed to sort through it all and we need to make use of them as well:

  • Who is reporting the information to understand the qualification, position and potential bias of the sources
  • Fact checking with multiple sources to ensure they are accurately representing the situation.
  • Comparing like units to make differences clearer, this is especially problematic when percentages are compared with absolute figures. Using the recent North Shore Outlook article on student migration for example, is "about 15%" in West Van enrolled outside the public system materially different from "3150 out of 23,500" in North Van, it would be easier to compare if these were both percentages (13.5%). 
  • Looking at the ranges / certainty of data. Is it "approximate", "average" on "absolute?" Averages are particularly dangerous creatures as it is often the extremes that are more important, knowing average class size is 30 kids sounds good but is that classes of 29 & 31 or classes of 10 & 50? How many 50's?
  • Looking at historic vs. projected data, how are the projections arrived at? Do two points actually make a line?
  • Have multiple interpretations been considered or is it just a limited set. 
  • Choice of words, are they over or under-inflating the meaning of the facts. There was a lot of "sky is falling" language in the past week.
  • Balanced vs. extremity of positions, do they weight the various sources appropriately or are they narrowly focused on one or the other side of the story. 
  • Number of sources, are they reflecting the majority or the minority opinion of the population.
The above are all well known critical thinking challenges, exacerbated by the glut of sources but technology layers a whole new set of new ones on top of these. 

Search engines, blogs, RSS feeds, personalization, search engine optimization, all these and other IT systems work to help us narrow our choices to "solve" the information overload problem by finding only the information we want to see. But to evaluate complex issues we need to ensure we aren't eliminating the broader opinions we need to see. 

It is very important that schools teach our kids to understand how the tools tend to distort the information they find, is the most popular article the most definitive? 

Schools already work to teach our kids these critical thinking skills within the curriculum. But if there is one important skill we all need to learn, and the school system needs to enhance, it is how to critically assess information and expand our thinking to overcome the tools rather than narrow it. 

In my opinion students need more access to computers in schools and teachers need more training to incorporate them into classrooms mostly because it is only by coaching them to deal with the messy glut of information available and forcing them to do the necessary critical thinking everyday that our kids will learn to understand the nuances of information overload.

And of course they need to teach readin, ritin, rithmatic and do it all with skill and enthusiasm on a limited budget.