Knowledge flows

(Heraclitus) of Ephesus wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. Everything flows and nothing abides. Even sleepers are workers and collaborators on what goes on in the universe. If we do not exepect the unexpected, we will never find it.” He was ahead of his time.

What learning used to mean
The definition of learning has not changed for centuries. Webster’s 1828 Unabridged Dictionary defined learn as:

1. To gain knowledge of; to acquire knowledge or ideas of something before unknown. We learn the use of letters, the meaning of words and the principles of science. We learn things by instruction, by study, and by experience and observation.

2. To acquire skill in any thing; to gain by practice a faculty of performing; as, to learn to play on a flute or an organ.

Today’s Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge Dictionary of American English, and others define learn precisely the same way. Language lags reality, for if the nature of knowledge and skills changes, the process of learning must change as well. And knowledge and skills are changing as never before.

Phase change of knowledge

Time is speeding up. By any measure, we achieve more in one of today’s minutes and than your father did in one of his. The half life of a degree in electrical engineering is four years. Ray Kurzweil says the 21st Century will contain 20,000 20th Century-style years. Half the knowledge in the world was discovered in the last two months.

Okay, that last statement is not true at all, but if you even considered the possibility, you know you inhabit a faster world than humankind has seen before.

Knowledge used to be solid stuff. The ancient Greeks studied the same logic I confronted in high-school geometry. Newton’s Laws of Motion had a three-hundred year run. Mickey Mouse is 77 years old.
Knowledge is melting. It is becoming liquid. It flows. Television shows and eLearning and blog entries are replacing books and courses and newspaper stories. Instead of learning life’s rules by playing stick ball with the neighborhood kids in an empty lot, thousands of people meet online to alter the course of civilizations of virtual worlds.

Each new generation has more autonomy than its predecessor. The latest crop of workers don’t want to be told what to do; they want to figure it out for themselves. In the days of solid-state knowledge, authors chose the patterns to present to readers. Now readers assemble their own patterns by plucking snippets of information flotsam and jetsom from the current flowing by. Instead of reading Charles Dickens, people want to dream up their own version of Charles Dickens.

Back to the beginning

The word learning derives from the word for footprint, because learning evolved from the concept of finding a path. This early learning was about getting somewhere and doing something. I’d like to return to that earlier meaning.

The proof of learning is doing. If a person learns something while all alone in a forest and their behavior never changes, they did not learn. A neuroscientist may object, saying there’s a new connection of synapses in the brain. Maybe so, but if it changes nothing, it’s inconsequential. Learning that is never actuated is as empty as an amnesiac’s lost memories.

How can we assess whether learning is effective? I once knew how to program NCR computers in machine language. NCR stopped making that series of computers thirty-five years ago. What I learned is of absolutely no use; it does nothing to improve my life or work. The value of my learning has been stripped away. I might as well have never learned at all. The value of knowledge is relative to the life the learner leads. Learning is that which enables people to participate successfully in life and work. Learning is a relationship of learner and the learner’s ecologies.

The earth moved

My personal learning network used to be so stable it hardly appeared to change at all:

With the advent of the internet, things began speeding up. Taking a new job, my network looked something like this:

Soon the game was in motion. People formed new relationships, I built new pathways to knowledge, stuff happened.

Soon my network was reshaping itself moment to moment. New sources appeared, people moved on, interconnections sprouted, and my sources of learning were always in flux. I’m moving, changing, and dealing with whatever’s on the edge at any given moment. New discoveries (“the information glut”) always await my perusal.

Disorientation

Six hundred emails await my attention. Stacks of unread magazines clutter my office. I’m reading six books simultaneously: I just shelved another dozen books half-read. My inbox runneth over.

Learning — keeping up — ain’t what it used to be. Today’s learners must master new subjects on the fly. They must be adept at pattern recognition. To succeed, they must become master gardeners of a forest of networks, forever pruing, planting, and nurturing their relationships with the world around them. They will rely on people/nodes they trust to filter the never-ending barrage of incoming information. They’re get by with a little help from their friends.

You’ve heard the joke about the American programmer who outsources his $150,000/year job to an Indian programmer for $15,000/year. Then he takes on four other jobs. Soon he’s netting more than $500K a year and still has leisure time aplenty. Reality is like that.

Today’s New York Times carried an editorial by Thomas Friedman entitled Outsourcing is Out. Time has rendered the term as obsolete as the e of eLearning. Friedman describes an urban Indian company that has begun to outsource to rural Indian villages the work that U.S. companies outsource to it. And then he writes about the development of Google Finance. The project was conceived in India, and Google’s Indian development shop oversaw all product development, calling on the skills of other Google offices as needed. Google’s headquarters had little or no involvement. Friedman calls this “around sourcing.”

Outsourcing suggests that the outsourcer is in and the outsourcee (word?) is out. In and out lose meaning in a flat world. We’re all in this together. And so it is with learning. It’s not in your head. It’s not in the books and bits. It’s all in there together.

Serendipity! Amazon just delivered another book for me to add to my stack. It’s CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD by Dr. Edward Hallowell.

I’m going to sign off here and read a bit of CrazyBusy while relaxing in the tub. Maybe Dr. Hallowell has some answers.

Update:

I did not find CrazyBusy very useful.

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