From NYT: Don’t Fear the Cybermind

I love the Sunday New York Times; you’ll notice from this blog that I end up posting links to many things I read there. I loved an entry this morning called “Don’t Fear the Cybermind” by Harvard psychology professor Daniel M. Wegner: it’s an interesting read on the distinction between the things we know independently–the things we have accessible through our own minds and memories–and the things we know that we can access via resources like Google and Wikipedia. You can read the article here and comment on it at will.

As I’ve shared with many people, my husband and I are avid trivia fans: we have a standing team and we play in a trivia game at a local restaurant almost every week. The thing that I love about the trivia games we play in is that there are only two rules: no shouting out the answers (write them down, smartypants) and no consulting your phone. This latter rule is critical: the game is meant to test the total store of knowledge of the people on your team, not who can Google things fastest. (That might also be a fun game, but it’s not the one we’re playing.)

We know that this latter rule is an artificial one: it’s the one that prompts the most eye-rolling from new players and the most protests from the uninitiated. “But the information is there,” one recent newbie on our team balked. “We could just look it up!” And that’s absolutely true: all of the information demanded of a trivia game is accessible somehow on the internet: that’s probably where the guy creating the game that night found the questions to begin with, and the knowledge required to arrive at the answers should be reasonably general. What’s challenging about trivia, then, is that you have to end up employing what we’ve termed “trivia logic”: what questions could they reasonably expect us to be able to answer? If we don’t instantly know the answer, what information do we have from the question? Is this a trick question? Is this a theme round, and have the last few questions before this offered us a clue?

I think that the things we learn from playing trivia have a lot of interesting applications to learning in general. It’s true: there will almost never be a time when I can’t look up the ideas of a major educational theorist, or the names of the characters in Hamlet, or how to serve a volleyball, or the steps for how to do synthetic division. However, if I know those things–if I have them readily accessible in my mental toolbox, so to speak–then I can use them at will. I don’t have to spend time figuring out where to find the information or depending on an outside resource to give me an answer. Instead, if I’ve learned a thing and I know it, I can use it whenever I need to. I have a context for that information and the things it might relate to and the ways it might be applied in new ways. 

I think that’s the distinction that’s worth making when it comes to school. You’re right: there will almost never be a time in your life when you can’t look a thing up. But most situations in life aren’t like a trivia game: it’s not just about arriving at a piece of information–instead, you need to be able to access, manipulate, and apply information in new ways to solve problems and come up with new ideas. Digital tools are a huge help in that work, to be sure, but they’re not the whole story.

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