A Conclusion So Bad It Is Not Even Wrong

If you give someone an exam, especially a standard exam, that requires that the student repeat the right answers, then, based on the results, you will decide that today’s students are inept compared to their predecessors. While that is a possibility, it is more likely that the thinking behind such a conclusion would need to improve before it was even worth discussing. It is not yet even wrong.

Why then the weak results? The test scores show a significant decline and the tests have been validated. They are not harder than they once were. What else other than lazy, indulgent and undisciplined young people can explain the difference? Assuming they are not really stupider.

Well, here’s the news. Young people today process information differently than we geezers. They don’t make an effort to remember things. They don’t need to do so. The world of knowledge is in their hand.

Knowing where the circular saw is, what it is, what it does, and what other variations there are, will likely get me through the exam. Knowing how to build a deck is not quite the same thing.

Today you do not need to know any fact or detail so long as you know where to get it when you do need it. People who know things this way do badly when they are required to draw a fact from their memory. It probably is not there in detail. But how to use it probably is.

Young people use their smart-phones and tablets in place of their local memory. For the past year or more, I have been referring to mine as my exo-brain. External memory.

There is almost nothing I cannot know within a few seconds. What is the temperature, right now, in Beijing? What time is it in Brisbane? What is the square root of 17? How many American Constitutional amendments have never been passed? How tall is Hugh Grant? Who won the 1947 Stanley Cup? How much would a used iPhone 4 sell for? What is the mathematical representation of the Bell Curve?

How well would young people do on a fact recovery based exam if they used their exo-brain? Probably quite well compared to the old guys.

The question that matters is, what do we really want to know from the testing?

If I am testing for the ability to apply information, and I submit that we should be, then does it matter whether I recover the fact in 3 seconds or 10 seconds? With a device or without? Old style testing tells us too little. Knowing things used to correlate with the ability to do things. Proficiency is no longer well correlated with possessing facts in local memory. People should want to use information; they do not need to possess it.

Is it possible that the answer that Google found was actually better?

Likely. It might also have some links to other important facts on the subject. I’ll bet your memory does not have many hyperlinks to the newest information or discussions of why the old information has been supplanted by something different. Thinking involves connecting, it is not a point.

All in, I think the use of the exo-brain probably improves the answers and the people who know how to use it are likely more competent.

But, there is another aspect that is not yet clear.

What about the situations where instinct and creativity are required? Google is brilliant but it is not especially good at creativity.

Will our young people be able to connect the dots when many pieces of information, possibly from several fields of study, are needed to complete the picture? How will they handle the unknown unknowns? Will they know how to create the right questions? Google and even more specific programs respond poorly to queries that look like, “Tell me about the things I don’t know yet.”

People who are educating young people today need to get away from ancient test and teaching methods. Smart phones and tablets have supplanted memory. We need new ways to improve creativity and the creation of results from complex fact sets.

Let’s help people learn how to best use information. Knowing and remembering is not worthwhile. Assigning meaning to information is valuable.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

don@moneyfyi.com | Twitter @DonShaughnessy | Follow by email at moneyFYI

One Comment on “A Conclusion So Bad It Is Not Even Wrong

  1. Interesting thesis, but lacking in practice.
    No matter what the demographic, nobody wants to have THEIR brain surgery done by a doctor who is following directions provided by his smart phone. Demonstrated success trumps knowledge very time!
    There is also the cavernous grey area somewhere between fact and emotion, called “intuition.” What causes your wife to be right more than she should be.
    And then there is the wild card of CHARACTER. A mentor of mine once said, “you can buy brains, but only God can give you character.”
    I’m not sure any generation in memory has worked as hard as we have, to rationalize and minimize the percieved character defects of its offspring. And to minimal benefit, because most of us are already painfully aware that we don’t have the perspective known to do a meaningful job of keeping score–and anyway, it’s way above our pay grade.

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