I’m not sure if it was reading encyclopedias for fun, or treating Jeopardy as appointment television each afternoon, or the years on the school quiz bowl team, but as a teenager I was quite certain that you could identify an intelligent and educated person when you saw them because they knew a lot of stuff. I also knew that factual accuracy was hugely important. I just couldn’t understand why, one day when I patiently corrected an acquaintance that every big, fancy church was not a cathedral and that you had to have a bishop in residence, he promptly told me off.
It was in college that I started to unlearn the proposition that factual knowledge = intelligence and education. I noticed that the adjuncts with Master’s Degrees, not the tenured Ph.D.’s were the instructors that had the best rapport with students and seem to inspire the most learning. But surely all those Ph.D’s knew more, didn’t they? If being learned didn’t mean knowing stuff, what did that mean for me? For a very long time , being the person who knew lots of stuff had been a huge part of my identity. I took being called a walking reference book as a compliment. I won at Trivial Pursuit against a room full of Mensans. Then came the absolute tipping point … Google. The game was up. With a search query , anybody could know stuff on demand with no expensive book habit required.
I still remember a moment when I started to understand what the alternative was. I was in a music methods class and the professor was discussing the folk ballad “The Twa Sisters”. I mentioned how it was like _________ (I can’t remember what, but whatever it was was non musical.) After class she stopped me and told me it was an intelligent comment, because it had made a connection between two not obviously related things. Maybe being educated was about being able to put facts and ideas together, like puzzle pieces. (Please note that I still can’t stand jigsaw puzzles. They don’t lend themselves to brute-force analysis.)
This realization has, slowly but surely, changed how I teach. In my first few years, I still clung to “objective” tests because I lacked the confidence and energy to defend a “subjective” grade on a writing sample. I have slowly but surely moved the other direction, and have now reached the point where the graded multiple choice exam has disappeared from my course design. That unlearning also helped push me towards things like #FutureEd. Most of our educational habits teach students something (explicit memorized knowledge) that is much less important than it used to be. The questions I am left with are, “What learning tools help to create what I now understand a learned person to be in the same way a pile of encyclopedias and a Jeopardy habit helped create the knowledge-filled person I thought a learned person was?” “How do we make those tools as available to the world as Google is?”