Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Fun with Safire and Networked Learning Theory

Lot’s of interesting stuff to talk about today (an incredible amount of which was in the New York times — check my del.icio.us links). Let me start off with William Safire’s last column titled “Never Retire.” Safire sums up his reason for leaving to two bits of advice he’s received. As he explains, “combine those two bits of counsel – never retire, but plan to change your career to keep your synapses snapping – and you can see the path I’m now taking.” The first piece, never retire, is a little too far away for me to really think about, but I believe the second piece is incredibly important. My biggest worry leaving college was stagnant thinking. After spending four years being constantly fed new and (mostly) interesting information, how was I going to keep those “synapses snapping” after I was left to fend for myself?

What I found was that writing and reading blogs were a great way to keep things working. All those millions of people writing have given my brain plenty of fodder. This space has replaced the essay writing I once did for a grade, and I think it’s done a damn good job. I have found new joy in committing my ideas to paper and to discovering new thinking and connections that I may have overlooked.

One of those connections, which I just discovered, is from something I wrote on a precursor to this blog. In an entry about the static nature of education I wrote:

I think the problem with teachers and teaching in general is that the information they’re teaching is so static. For whatever reason, it has been determined that history will only exist as some kind of dead entity rather than something which is ever evolving. History is important because it effects the decisions we make today, that is why people should learn it. However, there is too often no mention of the fact that history is a monologue rather than a dialogue (which connects us back to Plato). It is written by those who are victorious and accounts can often be incredibly different. If history teachers refuse to accept that the world is an evolving place and their style and technique must change, then how could they ever hope to communicate the fact that history is not a static entity?

This immediately made me think about an entry I read this morning from Aaron Swartz, titled Stanford: Day 63. In the entry Swartz talks about a professor who made an example of him in a humanities by asking the class, “Why is Aaron wrong?” He writes about their confrontation after class:

I corner her afterwards to ask what’s up. She says that she talks over me because I’m the only one who talks over her, which is only somewhat convincing. She says that I purposely exaggerate things, which I deny (although I admit that language is imprecise). She explains that the goal of the course is to look at ideas, not at facts. I wonder how one can possibly have useful ideas if you ignore the facts. I could hypothesize all sort of absurd things and come to all sorts of absurd conclusions, but the clear implication of philosophy is that the hypotheticals and the conclusions are applicable to our world.

So many academics have trouble finding the line between facts and ideas. To avoid static thinking requires understanding both. Otherwise, you get caught going in circles. This can happen two ways. One possibility is that there are so many disconnected ideas that there’s nothing to tether the big idea to the real world and make people believe it’s possible. Otherwise, an idea can be so heavily weighted with facts that there’s nothing to lift it off the ground, nothing to excite people.

The best way to make people see something is to show them the connections. That’s how we think. Making connections is not a new way of thinking, however, it’s more evident than ever before thanks to the giant network most of use every day. Educators need to understand and embrace this idea generally and the internet specifically. Although it often seems hopeless, there are those who get it.

I recently read an entry on Smart Mobs titled “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age”, which talks about a theory of learning that George Siemens advances in an article in the International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning. Siemens writes:

We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act. We derive our competence from forming connections. A network can simply be defined as connections between entities. Computer networks, power grids, and social networks all function on the simple principle that people, groups, systems, nodes, entities can be connected to create an integrated whole. Alterations within the network have ripple effects on the whole.

That is an illustration of how we think that would have never existed before the internet. In fact, the internet is encouraging people to try and better understand how the brain functions. Which gets me right back to Safire. I got an email from my mother this morning telling me to read the Safire op-ed. Here’s an excerpt:

Also, he’s going to a foundation that focuses on
brain science. As we discussed the other day, and as David Brooks
wrote in his review on BLINK
, I think that in the next 25 years, brain
science will have more of an influence on how we view the world — and
hopefully, on how we educate — than anything since the industrial
revolution. (Remember I said that!)

I can’t disagree with her (for one because she’s my mom and second because she knows much more about the topic than I), but I would say that a major reason for the revolution she sees are the breakthroughs in technology and networking brought forth by the net.

Remember I said that!

January 24, 2005