Tag Archives: context

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

How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

It’s the weekend. Other couples tour Ikea, visit garden centres, wipe chocolate ice-cream off their children’s faces. My husband and I debate whether or not it matters that people don’t understand what a browser is.*

My argument is that if they can’t tell the difference between a browser and search engine technology, that’s just good design. Browsers, search engines … who cares what they’re called, so long as everyone knows how to use them?

His argument is People who don’t understand the simple fundamentals of the technology they use are only ever going to scratch the surface of what they can do with it. The full benefits of technology shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, but of the many, and people need to take responsibility for learning about this stuff.

Of course, we’re both kind of right … so we throw some ideas around, iron out wrinkles in the discussion. He can’t believe that people might not be interested in how their technology actually works; I point out that a lack of understanding of basic physics never stopped anyone from enjoying radio, television, or a movie.

And then he drops the bomb.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the benefits that have accrued from understanding of new technologies. For example …”

By the time he gets to ‘accrued’ in the first sentence, I’ve lost it. “What?

“It’s not that complicated,” he says. (My husband is frequently smarter than I am, and most of the time he knows whether I am genuinely lost or just being an intellectual slob.)

“It is if you don’t know what the idea at the end of the sentence is,” I say, miffed. “If I’d been reading your sentence, I could have gone back and parsed it again. But this … there were like four abstract concepts before it even began meaning anything.”

“Huh,” says my husband.

“You totally overloaded my working memory!” I say.

My husband, who is used to comments like this by now, says nothing.

“It’s the curse of knowledge,” I tell him.

“It’s what?”

The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

“Okay,” says my husband. (Not “What?” or “It was just a sentence,” or “Do you have to bring your work home with you?” Reader, this is why I married him.)

There is a pause.

“I think,” he says, “I think I tend to do that a lot, because I like making people laugh, and the punchline always has to go at the end.”

He considers it for a moment. “The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be overestimated.”

“Perfect.” And we go about our day.

There was a point to this story, beyond confirming your suspicions that my husband and I are perhaps not the sort of people you want at your dinner party. The point is simply this:

Give your audience some context from the outset, or you will lose them immediately. This applies in general, but especially if the information you want to convey is complex or abstract.

And never underestimate the curse of knowledge.

* My favourite bit of the video is the guy at around 1:19 who says he uses Firefox “… because my friend came over to my house and erased all my other browsers and installed it and said ‘you’re using this now.'”

[Edit: My husband wasn’t entirely satisfied with how I had represented his argument, so I’ve reworded that section since this was first posted.]


Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

The power of stories in education

If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.

– John Steinbeck

My colleague Andy Morley and I spent some of yesterday afternoon trying to persuade our colleagues that one way to enhance students’ understanding of lectures is to set the context by telling stories. (Andy, by the way, is much better at remembering and telling anecdotes than I am.  This would be a good skill to learn.)

We recently conducted a survey of colleagues, asking – among other things – about how they write and construct lecture slides.  Our results suggest that while many staff think that the structure of a lecture (that is, the order in which information is given) is very important, a significant proportion (around a quarter) think it very unimportant.

Stucture is important!  Without structure, there is no story.  If I tell you that Little Red Riding Hood arrived at her Grandmother’s house and narrowly escaped being eaten by a wolf, but only much later do I add that this wolf had previously eaten the grandmother (who in turn had previously eaten a chicken, which had … yeah, okay), you’re not really getting the full picture, and as a result, you’re unlikely to remember much of what I said.  Here are some great experiments that explain why understanding context is so critical if we are to remember anything about the experience.  Now apply those to learning: we’d be crazy not to tell stories about the context of the material we teach – right?

I bet every one of our first-year psychology students could tell you what happened to Phineas Gage, even if they can’t always articulate what this tells us about the brain. What people remember afterwards is the stories. So make them good ones!


Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff