Forget About Remembering, It’s Focus That’s the New Literacy

focus page
focus page

The cost of information is rapidly approaching zero. Normally as price of a commodity drops, we consume more of it. But unlike all the other cheap stuff we buy, and then later discard, cheap information demands our attention. Despite all the claims of multi-tasking, we are stuck with a finite attention span. Thus the ability to selectively filter out unwanted information and stay focussed on a task is emerging as a new literacy.

Students are adrift in a sea of text without context.  As the barriers to content creation have dropped, old media (for all its flaws) has been replaced by pointless mashups, self-promoting pundits, and manufactured celebrity. Educators must help students make more effective use of the information that fills their lives – how to better access it, critically evaluate it, store it, analyze, share it, and maintain their focus. An essential goal of the Common Core standards.  For more on how we need to redefine the information flow in school see my post “What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?

Recently David Dalrymple, a researcher at the MIT Mind Machine Project, made an insightful contribution to the The Edge Annual Question — 2010 “How is the internet changing the way you think?“ He wrote, 

“Filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill for those who use the Internet. … Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.”

If you need a visual reminder of the swamp of information that your students are wading through take a look at this video “InfoWhelm and Information Fluency” from the 21st Century Fluency Project

9 Replies to “Forget About Remembering, It’s Focus That’s the New Literacy”

  1. Thanks Peter for sharing this. Really made me think. I am a history teacher, so it’s important that kids understand certain facts and information. This basic building block understanding then gives them a platform to learn from.

    The scary thing to me is when educators take it in either direction in extreme ways: 1) Recall of facts alone to parrot it back for the state test or 2) Attempt to teach a class based on very little factual information and no substance.

    Hitting the sweet spot is difficult, but when laced with information gathering skills, it is possible. As I like to phrase it, “We are preparing kids for their own education.” Once they leave us they should have the skills and understanding about how to search out information they need and learn on their own.

  2. David,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree – it’ss so tough to get it right.

    In education we tend to swerve- oversteering from one reform to the next. It took me some time, before I came to realize my job as teacher was not to simply dispense information. But instead, to create learning experiences that provoked reflection.

  3. I think this is such a relevant post. With the flutter among educators about devices such as the iPad, I’m quite concerned that the current wave of students entering colleges and taking part in mobile learning studies have not yet developed the type of information literacy that is required for them to be successful with these devices.

    In a recent post on my Connected Mind blog, I specifically touch on the need for teaching focused thinking and analysis at the foundation level – primary and pre-primary – before introducing children to the distractions of online media.

    As a mother of two boys, one with diagnosed ADD, the lack of information literacy education in our schools is particularly concerning for me.

  4. Maritza,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with you that our schools could do much more to prepare students for critically analyzing and filtering their information stream. Students floundering in a sea of text without context. Too many teachers still think their job is to simply dispense (even more) information. We should be giving our students the skills and perspectives to navigate it on their own.

    PS – I did spend some time on your blog and enjoyed it

  5. Glad you enjoyed your visit to my blog, Peter! I have in fact sent on the link to this post to the principal of our primary school with the hope to spark a conversation about what the school and parents can do to get information literacy into the curriculum.

Leave a Reply to Peter Pappas Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: