- The scarcity and value of knowledge
The scarcity and value of knowledge
How changes in the availability of knowledge have impacted students and society
Since its founding in 1888 until the early 2000s, the company De Beers did everything that it could to control the supply of diamonds hitting world markets. This monopolistic power allowed De Beers to set the global diamond price whilst simultaneously controlling 80-85% of the diamond supply. What a great (though illegal) business model! When diamonds are scarce, they’re perceived as more valuable.
A child is contentedly playing with a toy car, oblivious to the stuffed bunny rabbit on the ground next to them. Another child sits down beside them and begins to play with the rabbit. The first child immediately casts the car aside, screaming, and demanding the rabbit! When the stuffed rabbit becomes scarce, she’s perceived as more valuable.
A couple of centuries ago, knowledge was much harder to come by. But we’re now in the Information Age (which began in the mid 1900s) and knowledge is more available than ever. What’s the impact of this? When knowledge becomes less scarce, it’s perceived as less valuable.
There are strong arguments for the fact that knnowledge is the foundation of all learning and progress. But in this EdThread, I want to focus upon some potential downsides of increased knowledge availability. We’ll look at three main areas: student attention, learning overwhelm, and relationships.
Increased knowledge availability can decreased student attention
If I was sitting in a classroom in 1875 and I missed what the teacher had said, it would require significant effort for me to make up that learning. I would need to either find the teacher and ask them, ask a classmate or copy their notes, find a community member with the required knowledge, or track down a public library.*
If I’m sitting in a classroom in 2023 and I miss what the teacher has said, there’s a very, very good chance that I can find that same information with a few keystrokes and a few mouse clicks on YouTube, Khan Academy, or somewhere else on the net.
Against this backdrop, it’s quite rational for an 1875 student to conclude that paying attention in class is absolutely crucial, and for their 2023 counterpart to conclude that their attention is entirely optional.
*Which would have been pretty hard in 1875, as tax payer funded public libraries were only just getting established at the time.
Increased knowledge availability can lead to overwhelm
Given that attention is a pre-condition to learning, it’s no surprise that reductions in attention would lead to a reduction in learning. But information expansion also has the potential to have another detrimental impact, increasing student overwhelm.
Imagine I’m that 2023 student who wasn’t listening in maths class so, when I get home, I decide to try to plug my knowledge gap by taking a look on youtube. I got to YouTube and search up the topic of the day, ‘how to calculate percentages’. When I do, I’ll likely be met with something like this:
And that’s just the first six of about sixty videos, all of which have titles that make them seem plausibly helpful. So, where should I start? The choice runs the risk of being overwhelming.
In contrast, if I’m a student with a mathematical question in 1875, where do I go?
Chances are, this is also the text that the teacher was using in class. I could go to the contents, find the lesson we’d covered that day, and I’d be off. Granted, the diversity of explanations afforded by YouTube is definitely helpful, but it also entails an increased risk of overwhelm.
This links back to my last post, 1875 – 2023: What happened to teacher knowledge? In that post I lamented that teachers in 1875 had to clear a much higher bar to enter the profession than do teachers of today. I hypothesise that one of the reasons for this is that the body of knowledge that they were expected to master was much more constrained and clearly defined than it is today.
Evidence for this can be found in Lucia Downing’s account of her experience taking her teacher training entrance exam in the mid 1880s. In a diary entry, she wrote:
Here, Lucia refers to one of the most widespread mathematical textbooks of the time as the source of her knowledge on the topic. When we feel that the knowledge we need to master is bounded, it feels more attainable. When knowledge appears infinite, it can much more easily lead to overwhelm.
Increased knowledge availability can impact inter-generational relationships
Imagine your bathroom door is loose and you need to fix it. What would you do?
I know my answer, I’d look on YouTube!** The benefit (as well as the curse, as expanded upon above) of YouTube is that we can very quickly access a multitude of opinions on that particular task, and select from this multitude an option that suits our context.
What would I have done a decade ago? I would have found someone who knows, and that someone, in my context, would have been my Dad or my Grandad. We would have caught up, worked together on the door, he would have shared his knowledge, and the interaction would have strengthened our relationship.
The information age has meant that the fountains of knowledge within our communities are no longer those with the greatest measure of lifetime experience. Rather, the richest sources of knowledge in our communities are devices, and this isn’t going to change any time soon. It seems to me that the increased availability of knowledge in the information age has shifted the rich dynamic of intergenerational sharing that has been in place for millennia.
The current availability of knowledge is phenomenal, but it also has costs. At its heart, increased availability runs the risk of decreasing perceived value. Further, increased knowledge availability can reduce student attention in the classroom, make learning tasks seem insurmountable, and can also have broader impacts on relationships. [Not to mention fuelling the erroneous argument that knowledge is no longer important and we don’t need to remember anything any more… but that’s a debate for another time]
So, what can we do about it?
Well… I’ll share some thoughts on that next week!
**If you feel there’s a contradiction between my point on learning and overwhelm (YouTube can be overwhelming), and my point on learning and relationships (I’d probably go to YouTube before my Dad or Grandpa), well spotted. But there’s a nuanced difference in these scenarios that I plan to expand upon in the next EdThread!
Other threads to pull on
Peter Liljedahl’s Building Thinking Classroom’s model is gaining enormous traction in the US in particular as a model for mathematics instruction. Whilst there are definitely some valuable ideas in Liljedahl’s work, Michael Pershan’s recent article dissecting the evidence that the Thinking Classrooms approach is built upon is well worth a read.
The borrowing and reorganising principle from Cognitive Load Theory asserts that the most efficient way for a learner to build an accurate knowledge schema in their long-term memory is for them to attempt to ‘borrow’ that knowledge schema from an expert and replicate it in their own long-term memory, insofar as is possible. We make it easier for our students to do this when we clearly map out for students how that knowledge is structured. This blog by Francis Miller explores how content structure maps can help communicated interconnected schemas of knowledge.
The most recent episode of the Education Research Reading Room podcast is with Daniel Willingham on How to Study. I loved talking to Dan, hope you enjoy listening too!
Jejune: naive, simplistic, and superficial. "their entirely predictable and usually jejune opinions"
Gelid: icy; extremely cold. "She gave a gelid reply"
Celerity: Swiftness of movement. “I am by no means convinced that you would be gone with such celerity were Mr. Bingley not there.’
Amanuensis: a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.
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