Are Your Students Frozen in Intellectual Amber?

One of my best digital friends is Steve Muth—one of brilliant minds behind VoiceThread, my favorite Web 2.0 tool of all time.

Steve and I have been interacting for years now.

He’s always thankful of the work that I’m doing with VoiceThread because it helps other teachers to see just what’s possible with his tool and I’m always thankful for his interest in creating a great tool for teachers and students—and for keeping that tool affordable for schools.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, I think.

Steve saw my post on managing information as an essential skill and dropped me an email that you’ve GOT to read.

He wrote:

Hey Bill,

Just wanted to share a Seth Godin blog post with you:  ‘The future of the library’.

My main point of agreement is the goal of graduating ‘Data Sharks’ which I think is a skill essential to modern work and life.

It doesn’t really matter what students know when they graduate.

If they step out the door of the school and don’t know how to hunt down and get information they’ll essentially be frozen in intellectual amber wearing their graduation cap and gown.

I’m not sure how many core skills there are in the future but I’d say Data Shark is one, and Collaborator is another. At VT I’d just hire someone for anything if they excelled in both those fields.

People can learn anything, at any time in their life, but without the ability to hunt and find data, and then collaborate with others to give that data form and meaning, well, they probably won’t accomplish much.

Your fellow curmudgeon,

What caught Steve’s attention in Godin’s post was this bit describing the libraries—and librarians—of the future:

The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty.

And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

Wouldn’t you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information?

There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.

What I LOVE about Steve’s thinking is his metaphor for students who graduate without the data sharking skills Godin describes.

Steve says that they are “essentially frozen in intellectual amber.”

How powerful is that language?

More importantly, how frightening is that language for schools who are still set on cramming content down the throats of today’s students?

The fact of the matter is that our focus in schools has to shift if we’re ever going to prepare our kids to be hired by entrepreneurs like Steve.

You saw it in his message:  He’s not interested in hiring people who know a ton of random stuff on graduation day.

He’s interested in hiring people who are confident in their ability to learn and capable of collaborating with others.

Are those lessons being taught in your classrooms?

If not, why not?


Related Posts:

Scoring VoiceThread Participation

What I’d Buy Instead of an Interactive Whiteboard

Technology Just Makes Good Teaching Easier

13 thoughts on “Are Your Students Frozen in Intellectual Amber?

  1. Douglas

    Hi, Bill,
    What you said in response is interesting in juxtaposition to a previous post on your tech failing you in class (I commented there as well).
    In any event, this world and its torrent of information yields no substantive gains for the bulk of humanity. What does your finding of certain fact do for the human? The more we push DATA, even if we mask it in the idea of sifting to discover the “right” kinds of data or simply being a discerning consumer the more we are pushing a world view that is not about the aspects of human being that seem to this man natural…being as a human animal in the world. I do not want to find myself sifting data and I don’t want my kids to sift data…I want them to live in this natural world–not in a mechanical invention. That is my real fear…pushing tech is pushing a new world order that has nothing to do with being an organic creature and everything to do with serving a mechanical purpose.

  2. Zinnia

    I don’t mean to sound argumentative, but the argument you are making about what librarians do is the same thing that allows people like Oprah and Bill Gates to feel that they know what teachers do: the assumption that because you are familiar with the occupation, you know all it about it; that in fact, you could do it yourself.
    I don’t belittle all your training, education, self-study and intellectual growth and yes, you aren’t the average teacher or even person in those regards. But a trained librarian has a Master’s Degree–it’s a specialized field on top of whatever undergraduate study one might have. Corporations, news organizations, hospitals, and law offices all still use librarians because they recognize the value of someone who can locate, organize, and provide the highest quality information quickly. (And generally, the highest quality information is not on the free web.)
    As for school librarians, we are already thinking about the “space” issue. We talk a lot about how our libraries are now being seen as warehouses of books and that we don’t want to be seen as the keeper of the warehouse. Many of us are moving toward a learning commons model which is flexible, student-centered, experimental and multi-facted: a physical space, virtual space, experimental and collaborative learning areas, small group work spaces, media production space, etc. It’s difficult when our spaces were originally built as simple book warehouses back in the day, but we are trying to adapt old spaces to the needs of today’s users.
    I think it’s surprising how many people don’t seem to become data sharks on their own. You seem to have an aptitude for learning about information but it’s been surprising to me how many students (I work in a high school) really have no structural big picture for understanding data–no idea how the internet works or is organized, no idea how to create a good search, no concept of information quality or bias, etc. Those are all things that need to be taught. Some schools have information literacy curriculums which may be embedded alongside core curriculum so as to be authentic. I personally like the Guided Inquiry model.
    If you don’t already, I would urge you to follow Joyce Valenza, school librarian guru. She’s doing all the things the members of our profession wish we had the time to do.

  3. crazedmummy

    It’s not just about getting data. Is the data good? How does it go together with the other data? Remember that data you looked at 6 weeks ago – how does that relate?
    Making those relationships between pieces of information is really where value is added. The research showing that students are no longer learning how to remember is a little disconcerting, because without memory you can’t put those things together. And learning how to put together and create those relationships and make something new cannot be done if you can’t hold the pieces together in your mind.
    As we keep teaching students that just looking up data for instant gratification is okay, we dissolve the base of what is really valuable. I see my students kept as low-income grunions while the students who have had their neural networks developed to be able to remember things become the elite. My kids already have enough stacked against them – poor nutrition, environmental poisoning, survival mentality – they should be spending all their time on brain development, not have people say it’s okay to not remember things because they can always look them up.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Zinnia wrote:
    “Data Sharks” is exactly what trained librarians are. Many of us have a wealth of skills to share with students and teachers, but sadly our colleagues often see us as the nice ladies who shelve books, not as a resource for collaboration and enrichment of classroom content.
    Zinnia: Go and read Godin’s entire piece. It’s linked in the entry.
    He argues that we have no need for libraries anymore, but we still have a need for librarians.
    I think that’s an important construct for current media folks to get their heads wrapped around. Your skills are valuable, your spaces are not.
    What I wonder—and honestly worry about for the librarians—-is how long your skills will stand apart as unique.
    Honestly—and this always gets me in trouble when I say it out loud—there’s not a lot of things in your comment that I can’t already do on my own.
    I’ve spent a ton of time learning how to manage information and I’d stack my understanding of social networks as learning ecosystems against most people’s any day.
    That means I’m pretty darn sure that I could survive without the support of a librarian.
    I realize, though, that I’m not the ordinary teacher. Most of my peers still have a lot to learn from y’all.
    Will that be the case 10 years from now, though?
    Isn’t it possible that the kinds of data sharking skills that make you stand out as an expert might become more common for more people as more people live and work in information-soaked environments?
    Just wondering out loud here.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Marsha wrote:
    But what I wondered is if the metaphor really shouldn’t be extended to our schools. Isn’t it really the same case?
    Marsha: You’re brilliant.
    Until you’d mentioned it, I didn’t realize how nicely the “frozen in intellectual amber” metaphor worked for our schools, too.
    What’s crazy is I’m pretty pessimistic about our ability to break out of that amber. The kind of significant change that our schools need to undergo is just not likely to happen for a ton of reasons.
    Scott McLeod shared a few Richard Elmore quotes today. One had Elmore asking what would happen if we just opened the doors to schools and let kids leave to learn in the more networked, social ways that people like you and I love.
    My answer: Parents and employers would be pissed. Who is going to watch the kids all day long?
    Interesting, isn’t it?
    In some ways, we’re locked into the brick-and-mortar model because it keeps the kids busy while mom and dad struggle to make a living.
    Any of this make sense?

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Douglas wrote:
    Winston Smith says the hope lies in the proles. The people being HUMAN, not data sharks, constantly manipulating propaganda and statistics.
    Did you read this Godin quote from the entry:
    There are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value
    No one is arguing that students become propogandists or people who are somehow disconnected from other humans.
    In reality, we’re arguing for the exact opposite. We’re arguing for communities of colearners who can sift through information to find content that is relevant and engaging.
    I like thinking of them as intellectual puzzlemakers—assembling information into new understandings, interpreting content with one another, making discoveries together.
    None of that is possible, however, if students aren’t able to sift through—and then make sense of—-the heaping piles of information that surround them.
    Does this make sense?

  7. Zinnia

    “Data Sharks” is exactly what trained librarians are. Many of us have a wealth of skills to share with students and teachers, but sadly our colleagues often see us as the nice ladies who shelve books, not as a resource for collaboration and enrichment of classroom content. (It doesn’t help that we usually work alone in a building of people organized into departments; imagine being the ONLY English teacher and trying to convince people what you do is important.)
    In my graduate studies in library school I studied information architecture, advanced web searching, the theory of information classification, social media and intellectual freedom, and current issues in telecommunications policy, among other things. We are prepared to prepare students for the future. Unfortunately, librarians are being cut from school budgets as non-essential. After all, what we do isn’t on a standardized test.
    Many librarians are ready and waiting for the revolution in education.

  8. John Ferriter

    Without having researched the depth and breadth of the concepts outlined in your post; they really struck a chord in my mind as perhaps a means to leapfrog students in high needs schools who are stuck on red rather than amber.
    I also think this is a theme that needs to be shouted from every venue; politically, socially, economically and pubically so that everyone, everywhere can unlearn the “old” paradigms of education in order to learn how to train the data sharks (even plumbers) of the future.
    Sounds like another book outline is in order….

  9. Katie

    Hi Douglas,
    From my understanding of this post, the skill to cultivate in students that Bill and Steve speak of in this post could also be called “adaptability,” or “tenacity,” or “love of learning.” Their choice words, (“data sharks,” and “data hunting”) are more cutting-edge than mine, and they are speaking of just one value gained from having a capacity for life-long learning. However, I think it’s a leap to say that they have completely disregarded other aspects of human existence, let alone teaching, by only speaking to one point.
    What is true today may not be true still tomorrow, especially in the rapidly evolving and updating culture that we live in. While fostering adaptability and eagerness to learn in our children will help them later access many contemporary professions if they choose to pursue them, these are also qualities that allow a person greater capacity for satisfaction and emotional wealth in life. This is, in my opinion, a very essential part of being uniquely human. Today’s public schools are not encouraged to foster exploration in learning. Funding is not tied to skills that cannot be accessed and quantified efficiently. So the questions I am interested in discussing are:
    1. How are we fostering tenacity, adaptability, love of learning?
    2. How will the current system evolve to encourage teachers to cultivate these valuable qualities in our students?

  10. Douglas

    Hard to believe that at 42 I am an old man…I cannot understand a pedagogy that focuses on learning and unlearning (data erasure) as a skill to be cultivated.
    You all seem to want to encourage this easy erasure. Hunting for data is not a skill that needs to be taught exclusive of actual learning–or rather learning how to learn and evaluate.
    What’s our hurry? What is this new world of binaries that you want to educate students into?
    There are basic questions here that aren’t answered. You start at an end offered you by politics/business/economics/wealth…our working poor should be able to do X or we’ll just let them starve. It seems you are creating the next working class without any interest in their actual “human” being.
    What is unique about human life? What do you want to participate in as a human? Data mining?
    I am stunned by the constant push towards 50s sci-fi nightmares…the push towards even the Orwellian jobs of the future…
    Winston Smith says the hope lies in the proles. The people being HUMAN, not data sharks, constantly manipulating propaganda and statistics.
    This post and these ideas seem to me to want to educate away our very hope.

  11. Hatcherelli

    Great post! It really sums up the need for us to prepare students for a world where they are going to be faced with a sea of data. Let’s hope that we can teach our kids to collaborate as all of you have done to create this post.

  12. mratzel

    Dear Bill,
    I was reading Seth Godin’s post about the same time you were writing this…and I wrote a post about it too.
    I do like this metaphor of being frozen in amber if you aren’t a data shark.
    But what I wondered is if the metaphor really shouldn’t be extended to our schools. Isn’t it really the same case? It isn’t that we don’t need teachers. But do we really need school buildings that are constructed, designed and developed like they are presently run.
    More than re-designing libraries, I’m wondering if we should think about redesigning all places of learning to emphasize the idea of data sharks and being places where learning is passionate and problem solving based. Wouldn’t that make more sense?

  13. John Norton

    Hey, pal – some of the commenting going on at this interview between our friends Heather and Sheryl gets at this same issue.
    At one point, Sheryl offers a favorite quote of hers from futurist Alvin Toffler, who said back in ’98: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
    The kids now in classrooms where they’re learning how to “learn, unlearn and relearn” are very fortunate indeed.

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