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The information explosion and the erosion of learning (Part one)

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


We live in a time of unprecedented change, and depending on who we listen to, human knowledge is going to double every 12 hours in the foreseeable future.

We are experiencing change at a rate that we are incapable of comprehending. The importance of what one knows is becoming less and less relevant as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking shape, and artificial intelligence is taking over jobs that were previously seen as uniquely human. Knowledge, once regarded as a key to success, is increasingly seen as mere bits and bytes, easily stored on ever-cheaper cloud computers and retrieved if and when needed – at a speed and scale that humans cannot match. These changes are leaving no industry untouched – and education is no exception. We are told that the knowledge we teach kids today will be outdated before they even leave school. Schools are preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, and given that today’s Grade 4 learners will still be active in the workforce in 2080, the task seems nearly impossible. Society is increasingly scrutinising the value of curricula, and asking tough questions about the longevity and relevance of what students learn in school. Of course, these kinds of concerns are not completely new – some education reforms go back to the early 20th century, often in an attempt to democratise education and provide equal opportunities to all, while others are related to the rise of technology and its impact on society. Reforms aimed at democratising education may seem far removed from attempts to future-proof it. This pertains especially to their focus on skills rather than core knowledge. But where do these concerns come from, and what do (and should) they mean for daily classroom practice? In this two-part series, we take a closer look at the detrimental impact of the so-called knowledge explosion on learning and how it is undermining citizenship, one of the so-called six 21st century skills.

The doubling of knowledge every 12 hours by 2020

This graph is from a blog post1 by Marc Rosenberg, where he talks about the coming Knowledge Tsunami and the enormous challenges it will pose to humans. According to the article, posted on 10 October 2017, International Business Machines Incorporated (IBM) predicted that the magical year when this ‘tsunami’ will hit is 2020. If knowledge doubles every 12 hours, what are the implications for existing knowledge? Clearly, it means that existing knowledge will become less valuable, simply because what one ‘knows’ is continually becoming a smaller part of a much bigger whole. Could the growth of new knowledge mean the decay in the value of existing knowledge?

The erosion of learning

If new knowledge is added to existing knowledge at an unprecedented rate, while existing knowledge is consistently losing its value, what are the implications for the way we teach? What does a considered approach look like in a world where factchecking is simply a Google search away? It is clear that the convergence of these two trends2 have serious implications for how we teach and learn. So what should change? The most popular response by educators in addressing this ‘erosion of knowledge’ has been to move away from teaching ‘facts’ to project-based teaching and towards teaching skills such as the ‘six Cs’ (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, character and citizenship), because these are considered timeless and are therefore not at risk of becoming irrelevant. This approach focuses on developing students’ individual skills, as opposed to a traditional approach that focuses on ensuring a robust knowledgebase. But is this the correct response, and how does it measure against another ‘knowledge revolution’ – the one that has been taking place in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive science, pedagogy and psychology over the last 30 years?

Why knowledge matters

In his book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories, E.D. Hirsch3 points to the US and France, where the focus on skills at the expense of knowledgebased education led to a significant decline in the performance of both countries in comparative international benchmark tests. Although students took exactly the same benchmark tests as before, the new focus on individualised, skills-based teaching led to much worse results than the previous knowledge-based approach. The French experiment that started in 1989 basically did exactly what many educators and technologists are advocating for in the face of the so-called knowledge explosion and Fourth Industrial Revolution – it devalued a common core curriculum at the expense of teaching skills such as critical thinking. Even more relevant to South Africa, rather than eliminating or narrowing the knowledge gaps caused by inequality, these were accentuated by this new approach. In fact, each demographic group fared worse than what was the case before.

Conclusion: a different approach to the last of the 6 Cs – citizenship

In part two of this article, we consider how the impact of the knowledge explosion, the diminishing value of knowledge and the insights from the French experiment provide vital clues for teachers who want to empower their students as capable, creative and critical thinking citizens for the 21st century. As a precursor to that, we need to consider the following: First, one needs to recognise a fundamental flaw at the root of the ‘knowledge is valueless’ movement – it is simply inconsistent with what we have learned about the human brain and how it learns. To be critical-thinking citizens, children need to be immersed in the scientific and linguistic worldview of their time. Second, it requires a commonly shared knowledge base, presented in a rich vocabulary, which then forms the launching pad from which students can later excel and participate meaningfully in the 21st century economy. This knowledge is much more enduring than those pushing the ‘knowledge is dated’ agenda would have us believe. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise and to discourage students from mastering the prerequisite knowledge that they will require if they are to participate meaningfully in the economy. We will explore these themes in more detail in part two.

Dr Lieb Liebenberg is Chief Learning Officer of FutureLearn and Research Fellow in the Department of Information at the University of Pretoria.


1. See:

2. Rosenberg calls it a tsunami. See: 2468/marc-my-words-the-coming-knowledge-tsunami

3. Hirsch, E.D. (2016) Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing our Children from Failed Educational Theories.Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.

Category: Spring 2019

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