Why We Must Look At Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge Differently In The Digital Age

When you think of emerging technologies what emotions comes to mind? Inspiration? Excitement? Sheer pandemonium? During the first few decades of a disruptive technology’s journey into the mainstream, there is no shortage of skepticism, triviality, and outright angst.

If you’re looking for a great read on this topic, check out A Better Pencil by Dennis Baron. In an interview by Salon a powerful quote emerges

Plato’s critique of writing where he says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember things. Our memory will become weak. And he also criticizes writing because the written text is not interactive in the way spoken communication is. Of course we remember all this because Plato wrote it down — the ultimate irony.

So here we are in 2017, over 2,300 years since Plato with new technologies, and the same old fears.

From the pencil, to the printing press, to the personal computer, until the next p, society is constantly questioning the validity of how capable tools are in bettering society and in education, increasing the quality and access to learning.

I remember reading somewhere on the internet say the following as early as 2013, that we need to now design our questions and conversations in the classroom to be “non-Googleable” ie: a question that cannot be easily answered by a Google search.

*Side-note: The power of the internet! Finding the source of the term Non-Googlable took some Googling, Twitter searching, and finally a reach out to NoTosh after find their 2013 article being quoted in a book! The power of the internet I say!

This experience led me to ponder the following:

In the digital age with the entire scope of human knowledge accessible via a computer that fits in your pocket, is it now time that we start to evaluate the whys and hows of knowledge acquisition?

In a recent Twitter conversation, I shared this notion of information, knowledge and how we need to support students engagement and interface with it. The inspiration behind my thoughts below are strongly rooted in my personal thoughts on wisdom, understanding, knowledge and the tools and resources used to acquire them. While I am not a cognitive scientist, my graduate work was heavily focused on education (M.S.Ed right?) and the impact of technology use. The following thoughts are a mix of some educational research and a great deal of anecdotal observation. So what is the different between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge?

The dictionary definitions of the three terms provide interesting insight. How many times do we confuse knowledge with understanding? How many times do we equate having knowledge with wisdom? The truth is that the three words are light years apart and my observation as both a student, teacher, and administrator is that in education today many consider knowledge as the highest quality output for students. I’m not trying to devalue knowledge. It is important to know things. The problem with knowledge is that a robot can have knowledge. It also can have understanding as well. What a robot will lack is true wisdom as such a quality has so many layers beyond information and synthesis. With that in mind I propose the following question:

Which is more valuable? The ability to know everything, or the ability to find anything?

The ability to research, compile, and curate information is more about processing information than memorizing it. To knowledge’s credit, you need to have a foundational level of knowledge to succeed in most tasks, but if you know how to search for information and actually use it, then I would say you have advanced further than the student who memorized information for a worksheet that was turned into their teacher.

I first saw this image last week as part of the Twitter idea battle. As a designer, I am trained to seek out subtle details as I look to solve problems. The meme’s intent is to show that students who simply Google things without context or “knowledge”, will fall prey to an ultimate level of idiocy and confuse an image source with the information they should be looking for. Now I for one believe that this image is doctored. Why? Besides the three to four visual markers in how the content is placed, what stands out the most is that the original image doesn’t come up in a Google search. Imagine that. A student as young as 6 or 7 who cant spell images or a teacher looking for a worksheet image runs a Google Search for this image found an image of Present Getty Imeges, yet I can’t find it at all? I know Boolean strings for searching, I know how to do deep Google searches, yet the only images that come up are duplicate images of the original meme.

This stimulated a second question, which is why does the conduit to knowledge, ie: facts and information acquired by someone matter? If a robot, adult, or peer supply you with knowledge, why does either have an edge on the other? This student example doesn’t show a lack of knowledge, it shows a lack of understanding.

Since all experiences contain a trace of good, this Twitter interaction did inspire me to locate a few well cited research on the topics of learning in the digital age.

While there is certainly research that concludes technology can and does prevent learning and stifle academic gains, these 3 sources including one from MIT’s very own life long kindergartener Mitchel Resnick is definitely food for thought in this discussion of the what, why, and when of knowledge. For one, Dr. Resnick clearly challenges the notion of continuing that

[w]hile new digital technologies make a learning revolution possible, they certainly do not guarantee it. Early results are not encouraging. In most places where new technologies are being used in education today, the technologies are used simply to reinforce outmoded approaches to learning. Even as scientific and technological advances are transforming agriculture, medicine, and industry, ideas about and approaches to teaching and learning remain largely unchanged. (Resnick 32)

If the embracement and advancement of technology in other industries is not enough, he also use his article as a platform to question peoples correlation between education, learning and “information”. The value a teacher bring is in how they nurture complex reasoning and problem solving. I personally find it degrading of the teaching profession that they are mere databases that distribute information.

In Dr. Mark Warschauer’s research, his focus is on the digital age fostering a new level of autonomous learning which for 2007 was pretty spot on. One point that he makes that stood out was the idea that a student today with an internet connected device has access to “greater information and communication resources at their disposal then any scholar in the world of a half-century ago” (Warschauer 45).

Finally, Dr. George Siemen’s research contains some very thought provoking questions such as “How are learning theories impacted when knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner” (Siemens 3)? Or how Education should and must make adjustments [to] learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval) (Siemens 3).

I strongly believe that education today is still struggling with how to restructure and redesign learning experiences around technology’s role in both input and output of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. I also believe that much of the educational research conducted around technology’s role in teaching and learning fails (unlike these sources) to critique how antiquated educational processes still produce mediocre results even when technology is incorporated into the process. All other industries use technology to advance, shift, develop, and change, while Education is using it to validate and perpetuate a century old model of factory style learning experiences.

Resnick, Mitchel. “Rethinking learning in the digital age.” (2002).

Warschauer, Mark. “The paradoxical future of digital learning.” Learning Inquiry 1.1 (2007): 41–49.

Siemens, George. “Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.” (2014).