The search for context in education and journalism (wicked problems, Wikipedia, and the rise of the info-ferret)

It’s a January evening, a schoolnight, and I’m sitting on my sofa thinking Stuff it. I’m tired and it’s dark and I worked hard today, damn it. It’s pretty hard, at that moment, to engage with with the things I know are really good for me, like going to the gym, eating right, and engaging with decent journalism that actually says something worthwhile about the state of the world.

Ah, journalism. Why is it so hard to engage with good, wholesome news? You know, instead of the junk-food variety?

Well, for starters, it takes effort; something in short supply when you consider that UK academics apparently rack up an average 55-hour working week. So if I sometimes choose entertainment over learning, maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking really hard for 11 hours already.

Here’s the more interesting question, though: why should it take so much effort to engage with the news? I think the record will show that I did okay in school and that I know a few long words. I can follow an argument; on a good day, I can win one. But watching or reading the news and really, really getting it (not just at the who-shot-whom level, but understanding why), frequently eludes me.

For the longest time, whenever I read the news, I’ve often felt the depressing sensation of lacking the background I need to understand the stories that seem truly important.

I didn’t write that, but I could have. By the time I’d got old enough to be properly interested in the ongoing story that is Northern Ireland, no newspaper was interested in explaining the context to me. I knew it had to do with territory, nationality and religious differences, but who were ‘republicans’? What did they want? The newspapers all assumed that I knew a whole bunch of stuff that actually, I didn’t know. The dictionary was no real help, the Internet was still in short trousers, and Wikipedia didn’t yet exist. (Not that we had the Internet at home. We didn’t even have a computer.) And I was at that delicate age where I didn’t want to look stupid by asking what might have been a dumb question. (Actually, it wasn’t a dumb question at all, but I didn’t know that then.)

We would shy away from stories that seemed to require a years-long familiarity with the news and incline instead toward ephemeral stories that didn’t take much background to understand—crime news, sports updates, celebrity gossip. This approach gave us plenty to talk about with friends, but I sensed it left us deprived of a broader understanding of a range of important issues that affect us without our knowing.

Secret-that’s-not-really-a-secret: the guy who wrote this is a journalist. His name is Matt Newman, and he’s reporting here for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation about how modern journalism bypasses context in favour of immediate, juicy details..

News is complicated. To make sense of complicated things, we need context. And the newspapers aren’t delivering that context; even journalists say so.

In fairness, context is hard to come by when — as with Northern Ireland — your story pretty much defines the phrase wicked problem (see also its big brother, The Middle East). How much information is ‘enough’? How much background would you need to really understand the issues surrounding Obama’s healthcare reforms? Or the debate on university fees?

We need something, and traditional news media aren’t providing it.

But we have Google and Wikipedia, right? So there’s really no excuse for not being able to find out at least something about nearly everything. Apparently, when a big news story breaks, people really do converge on Wikipedia, looking for context; we are a generation empowered, as no generation before us, to find stuff out.


Except that I still get emails from my students that read What does [word from the course materials] mean? I used to write lots of replies of the biting-my-tongue variety, politely suggesting that the student take advantage of the resources at their disposal1, but eventually I got fed up with this, and wrote an FAQ in which I was somewhat more blunt, though I hope in a kind way.

My favourite was a student who emailed me after a deadline, apologising for the poor quality of the coursework he had submitted, and explaining that he hadn’t known what one of the words in the essay question meant — so he had just tried his best and hoped. This wasn’t a word that was archaic or obscure. This was a word widely employed in psychology and related subjects. It’s not in the paper dictionary on my desk (which, admittedly, is 20 years old), but it’s very, very easy to find and learn about online.

It’s not about having access to the information; all my students have Internet access at least some of the time. Too many (N > 0) of my students are just not in the habit of looking for information when they get stuck, like someone forgot to tell them that the Internet is good for more than just email and Facebook.

But students will surf Wikipedia and YouTube all day long, given half a chance, so what’s that about?

At Playful ’09, Tassos Stevens talked about the power of indeterminacy, and whether, if someone throws a ball, you can look away before you find out if the other guy catches it. Suspense is immensely engaging.

Wikipedia is like this: it’s a barely game, where the idea is to answer as many “Ooh, what does that mean?” questions as possible, using only the links from one article to the next. In suspensefulness terms, Wikipedia is an infinite succession of ball-throws, sort of Hitchcock: The Basketball Years. (Okay, so Tassos was talking about cricket, but my point stands.)

But education obviously doesn’t feel like a barely game, because students don’t behave there like they do when they’re surfing Wikipedia. So I guess we need more suspense. This might mean being less didactic, and asking more questions. Preferably messy ones, with no right answers.

I think that if we really want to turn our students into information ferrets, running up the trouserlegs of their canonical texts to see what goodness might be lurking there in the dark [This metaphor is making me uncomfortable — Ed.] then maybe we, like the news media, need to get better at providing context.

If students email me with simple queries rather than trying to figure things out on their own, maybe it’s because the education system hasn’t been feeding their inner info-ferrets. (Note to schools: teaching kids how to google is a completely different issue from teaching them to google and making it into a habit, and some days, it feels like you only deal in the former.)

We exist, currently, on the cusp: everything’s supposed to be interactive, but not everyone’s got their heads around this yet. (“Wait — you mean we’re supposed to participate? Actively??”) The old-school, didactic models of education and journalism (“sit down, shut up and listen; we know best”) are crumbling. And some of the solutions about how to fix journalism look a lot like the arguments being rehearsed in education about how to make it valuable and keep it relevant: develop rich content that your customers can help build and be part of; accept that you might need a model which permits the existence of premium and budget customers. (This is going to be highly contentious in higher education, and I still don’t know what I think about it. But I don’t think the idea is going away anytime soon.)

I ran one of the many iterations of this post past Simon Bostock and he wrote back: Newspapers have learned the wrong lesson of attentionomics. I think they’ve got it bang-on as far as briefly grabbing our attention goes,2 but I don’t think it’s doing much for our understanding of the news, and some days, I worry that education is headed the same way.

Jason Fry asks, if we were starting today, would we do this? This is a great question for journalism, but it’s also pretty pertinent to education: we still teach students in ways that make only marginal concessions to the Internet’s existence, treating it as little more than a dictionary, encyclopedia, or storage container.

Given that nearly anything can be found with a few keystrokes, if we had to redesign education from scratch, what would it look like?

More like Wikipedia. More ferret-friendly. And maybe upside-down.


[Acknowledgements: major kudos to Simon for linking to Ed Yong’s great piece on breaking the inverted pyramid in news reporting, for reading drafts of this post while I was losing my mind, and for the juicy, lowbrow goodness of LMGTFY, below.]

1 I suppose I could slam my students with Let Me Google That For You, but I prefer to save the passive-aggressive stuff for my nearest and dearest.

2 If this post were a headline, it would read STUDENTS TOO LAZY TO GOOGLE. (Admittedly this would be closely followed by SUB-EDITOR TOO DRUNK TO CRAFT ORIGINAL HEADLINE and BLOGGER CHEERFULLY IGNORES CLICHÉ.)


Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

21 responses to “The search for context in education and journalism (wicked problems, Wikipedia, and the rise of the info-ferret)

  1. “Wait — you mean we’re supposed to participate? Actively??“

    BAM! Shades of Euan Semple’s talk at Reboot11 last year.

    Lovely post, m’dear. I feel guilty when I don’t stay in tune with news (because I need a break at the end of the day), but I think I know how to search for the context and ask only when that context fails to emerge. It horrifies me to discover how many are totally out of the loop and apparently unaware of how to get in the loop. Was there some announcement about throwing away the proverbial thinking caps that many took seriously and literally?

    • Thanks! I feel guilty too, but then other days I pay a lot of attention, so it probably evens out. And I get increasingly pissed off at some of the stuff that passes for news, when it isn’t — it’s really comment, or speculation.

      If students left the education system with nothing but (a) the knowledge of how to find information and (b) the desire to find information, I’d say we were doing a good job. As things stand, I think we’re only really covering the former.

      • Hmm. I thought it was Einstein who said a sign of intelligence was knowing where to find information. Did that include how, and if so, that makes your (a) a good thing, or what?

        Desire. That is a very valid point. There seems to be consensus among, well, at least, marketeers, that we should find our passion, become engaged in what we do, etc. So the concept of “desire” is out there. The question is whether it gets misinterpreted in our superficial world. People become passionate about appearing on American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent, but who gets passionate about revamping political infrastructure, or programming the systems that run our gigantic societies, or improving waste management?

        The desire must make room for the occasional bouts of boredom that will inevitably appear. Again, on TV, all major problems are solved dramatically within one hour and with perfect hair and mascara…. Will we/they ever learn?

        • Knowing where to find information is important, if only because it’s so hugely empowering. But the desire to find information … I think people can be trained, but that’s a lot harder than learning a base skill. (Especially, as you note, becoming passionate about something that takes fairly serious investment but which has no obvious payoff — financial, whuffy, or otherwise.)

          Motivating people to give a damn is HARD. Most people would probably rather not think about what they’re missing :-/

    • Also, I so wish I’d been at Reboot11. It sounds awesome. Do you know if there are plans for anything this year?

  2. Good stuff.

    Weird convergence on “wicked problems” in this blog and mine…

  3. usablelearning

    Okay, I’m a little shocked about the inability of students to google unfamiliar words. That seems to be the minimum we should reasonably be able to ask of students. But then, my students frequently can’t be bothered to oh, say, read the whole assignment, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

    I do think you are right about providing context, and also creating a habit around information seeking. I’d probably add a (c) to the last paragraph around some critical skills for evaluating the information that they find (sort of like but geared towards internet research). We should help with some filtering of the noise, and scaffolding of the process.

    It did make me think of really class Howard Barrows-style Problem-based Learning (good write up here: ) where each lesson was structured around:

    – Ideas/Hypotheses
    – Facts
    – Learning issues (gaps in knowledge)
    – Action Plan (who/how to address those gaps)

    But basically, at the end of every lesson, students each had a specific responsibility to go research the gaps identified in the learning issues, and to bring that knowledge back to the group. I think it would take that kind of practice to really become a habit.

    Re: the news — several years ago, after a particularly difficult national and local election (, I was pretty burned out on all things news-related, and opted for a what basically amounted to a news blackout for 5-6 months. What I was amazed by (but shouldn’t have been) was how *easy* it was to be completely uninformed. I’m not the most informed person, certainly (either before or since), but I was still startled by how simple it was to basically not put yourself in the path of the kind of news you are talking about.

    • Hey,

      First, apologies that my spam filter got all up in your face and insisted that I mod your comment — I think it was all the links :) (Please don’t let that stop you from going link crazy here … loves me some links.)

      Yeah, reading the whole question/assignment … yeah. And I’m absolutely with you on the critical thinking skills and PBL: spot on.

      I took kind of a current affairs break after GWB got elected again (well, strictly speaking, the first time he actually got elected ;P ) and I was still burnt out when Blair won re-election here six months later. I learned very little about what was happening in the world at that time, except the tsunami, and the little genuine news I did get mostly came from friends. You can quite cheerfully exist in the world we inhabit without ever needing to be bothered by ‘news’ — probably even more so if you throw yourself into other flavours of media. There is no shortage of distractions.

      Well, damn. Now I’m melancholy ;P

  4. I know why students don’t bother to check. It’s partly because of stuff like this:

    And partly because of stuff like this:

    Although the second of these is an extreme example, the first isn’t. Undergraduate courses teach the degree not the subject and undergraduates know it – lecturers make it clear that they’re exploring the map and not the territory. Mine did, at any rate.

    People like you are, for want of a better word, ‘nice’. That means you’re congenitally incapable of understanding that your colleagues aren’t. Not all, anyway. Some of them ‘create’ these dysfunctions by being snarky and picky. (And some of your colleagues work in schools and colleges).


    I have to say, that student you talked about does sound like a gormless git.

    • Bless you for thinking that I’m congenitally incapable, but I’ve sat in classrooms too!

      I kind of feel I need to go back and revisit some of the ideas about maps and edges that I raised here.

      Hmm. Thank you; thoughts suitably provoked.

  5. Ooh, ooh! Almost forgot.

    How bonkers an idea is this?

    I figure I’m going to take some of the canonical ‘new journalism’ texts and edit them with as light a touch as possible to make them be about education (as if in an alternative universe where the ed bubble popped before the journalism bubble).

    Still not sure if it’s going to work but am looking for some examples of texts to work on, so if anybody has any suggestions…

  6. Well, I promise that I read the whole post, but I’m still going to comment on the first part, knowing that it’s kind of a context-setting metaphor for the rest of it.


    I have felt stupid for YEARS because I didn’t know the context for the news, and I have only so much reading time and the news feels so… transitory… that I find it difficult to spend time with it.

    So: relief that someone so MUCH more educated than I feels the same.

    AND… I got this out of the library the other week:

    but didn’t read it very far.


    Good book though.

    And… hi! Nice blog!

    ps – you do *versions* of your blog posts? Wow – I hit publish when I get bored of writing… #impressed

    • Hey, hi there!

      I’m sitting here hoping that your reference to “someone so MUCH more educated than I” refers to Matt Newman! The only tool formal education ever gave me for dealing with the news was my PhD, which taught me to critically examine written material in fine detail. Anything else has arrived by accident; education really doesn’t guarantee smarts.

      What an interesting looking book; if you don’t mind me asking, why did you stop reading? (My guess: it’s the book, not you.)

      Re post ‘versions’: I usually like to sleep on a post at least once before hitting publish; helps me iron out the wrinkles in my argument. But this one … this one was a monster. Two or three months in gestation and it would just not happen. Finally in despair the other day I reworked it, cut a whole bunch of stuff, and pressed the “Hell with it, I’m done” button.

      Thanks for visiting! :)

    • Oops, forgot to say this: I think a lot of us must feel stupid about the news. And you’re so right: it’s very transitory, because in a moment we’re either going over to Bob, live from the studio, or we’ll be hearing about something completely different. The attention juggling is perversely admirable in the sense that it keeps you watching, but it’s absolutely hopeless if you want to acquire any lasting meaning or context.

      I keep meaning to do a study about this. Maybe I need a journalism student. Hmm.

  7. And of course I googled ‘LMGTFY’ the minute I saw it.

    I can’t believe that *everyone* doesn’t do that – google unfamiliar terms – especially these young ‘uns.

    And, yes, it’s ironic that I had to google LMGTFY.

    But at least I did, right?

    • You did :) I wish more people would! It’s so easy. Of course, then we have to get into a discussion about the things that don’t show up in a google search, and the reasons why they don’t. But one step at a time, I say.

  8. Pingback: Ask, Don’t Tell: the power of questions « Finite Attention Span

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