Barefoot In the head

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

A New Literacy

“I don't need to know everything, I just need to know where to find it, when I need it”.
 - Albert Einstein

These words from Einstein, written decades before the Internet was created, are prophetic. They predict an age when ‘knowing’ becomes obsolete. We live in that age.

Now, this does not mean we don't need to know things. We do all the time. It’s just that we don't need to know as much as possible in the first seventeen years of our lives, and then, remember and use this knowledge for the rest of our lives.

There was a world where we were mostly in places and situations where, if we needed to use knowledge in some form, we had to get it from our own brains. There were no other places to look in. That world does not exist anymore. When we need to know, we can know in seconds, anywhere.

We need the skill for where and how to access the knowledge that we want. Those skills are very different from how knowledge is accessed in a library, from a teacher or even on the phone. Children growing up at this time need to learn this new skill.

We know that children can learn to use the Internet on their own, if they are allowed to and encouraged to.

How would we measure if children have acquired the skills to learn things rapidly, accurately and confidently? We need a new kind of test.

It is rather pointless to measure children’s ability to learn using the Internet, by breaking up the process of knowing into small parts. For example, ‘does the child know how to use a mouse?’ is no longer a relevant question. Touch pads, touch screens, voice recognition, and a host of other interfaces still to come, makes that question obsolete. Similarly, does a child know how a computer works is an obsolete question. It doesn’t matter anymore.

We need a test that will measure whether children, either individually, or in groups, can answer questions and solve problems using the information cloud and the myriad access techniques and devices that pervade our world today. We need to measure how quickly, accurately and dependably they can acquire knowledge. We don’t need to measure how they do this, because the methods, techniques and processes of knowing are too many and change too quickly, for such measurement to be useful.

To devise such a test, we will need to design questions of different levels of complexity. They should range from questions that are purely factual to those that require critical thinking. For example, a level 1 question may be ‘What is the time in New York?’ while a higher level question might be, ‘why do things float or sink?’ .I have made a first, and rather crude attempt at making a test based on tasks. We evaluate this test by asking, ‘could they anwer?’, ‘was the answer right?’ and ‘how long did they take?’. Ritu will try to calibrate this test in the next few months.

Such a test measures searching, reading, technological literacy and analysis skills all together. We don’t have a name for this ‘all-in-one’ skill.

It is a new kind of literacy.


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