in conversation with Gwen Gawith
Carolyn Coil’s keynote address and workshop at
West Auckland Education Centre’s recent conference on Gifted and
Talented Students highlighted the idea that, in the age of computers
and the Internet, the ability to select, understand and evaluate
information is seldom caught. Even gifted learners need to be
taught. I call it information literacy and Carolyn doesn’t, but
we are in total agreement as to what needs to be taught, why it
needs to be taught, and how it is best taught and learned.
We are also in agreement that teachers are the
key. Carolyn talks about gifted teachers "who are able to
make the world of knowledge come alive." Do all learners,
more and less gifted, need these gifted teachers?
We agree that teachers, themselves, don’t learn
the strategies for teaching students to select, understand and
evaluate information by osmosis. Teachers need to be taught, just
as learners need to be taught - all the more so as the Internet
is increasingly seen as the gateway to the pastures of self-directed,
independent learning for gifted learners. We agree that this is
ALL learners need to be taught the skills, and
be given lots of opportunity for guided practice. Carolyn says,
"We need to teach all students how to be critical information
consumers... Students must engage in critical thinking. They must
analyze, synthesize and evaluate information. They need to be
taught how to do this."
We’ve known for years that all students need
coaching and scaffolding to make effective use of information.
So what’s new?
What has changed is the context for learning
- the instant, digital, multi-channel, infotainment, click-and-flick
Internet society. These are the (virtual?) walls that define children’s
There is enormous pressure to replicate these
instant ‘click-and-flick’ features in education. In turn, if Vygotsky’s
belief in the inextricable links between thought and language
holds true, do these features come to define the nature of student
learning and the shape of their minds?
Carolyn talks about short and long-term memory
and says, "Children now are not required to process information;
they are required to remember little. They are processing
memory, but it’s junkfood sitcoms, movies, commercials, adverts.
In terms of conditioning the brain, I suppose it doesn’t matter
what you process, but in terms of richness of information... If
part of memory is to expand the mind, memory also has to do with
building the knowledge base, and it’s better to connect to, better
to remember something meaningful."
In short, there’s not much point in having the
world of knowledge at your fingertips if you don’t value knowledge,
don’t value learning and if you don’t know how to learn deeply
and recognise what Joan Aiken called ‘pap from protein’.
We discuss a paradox that Carolyn calls ‘Digitised
Cinderellas’ - that Cyberworld, virtual reality, isn’t about reality;
it’s about escape from reality. By harnessing Cyberworld to service
school curricula do we invite and embrace the superficial, and
uncritical representation of ‘reality’ in the guise of information.
Carolyn shares my concern about ‘cognitive bypass’
fact-repackaging print and multi-media projects that don’t involve
critical thinking and analysis.
We agree that both in the USA and in NZ burgeoning
curricula have meant that teachers are under pressure to teach
for breadth, not depth. Making the world of knowledge come alive
inevitably requires depth - helping students to explore knowledge
deeply, critically, relating it to the worlds.
If, as a student, curriculum topics "have
no relevance to you and your world, no relation to each other,
your point of view becomes ‘Why bother?’ and we have to ask ‘What
does have meaning?"
We agree that "Gifted teachers make the
world of knowledge come alive." Teachers have never had a
more important role to play in helping students to learn how to
Carolyn says, "Gifted students need teachers
and mentors to help them navigate through the wealth of information
and the vast array of misinformation that is available to them."
So, if this is obvious to both of us, why is it so hard to do?
We agree that working with the technology, teaching
students to make the world of mediated knowledge come alive for
them is what we need to do - something that we, as teachers, are
uniquely placed to do. The skills CAN be taught. As teachers we
need to ensure that we are able to teach them.
Yes, the curriculum is a deterrent to
deep learning, but if you can prove that your students are learning
deeply, love learning, and love knowledge, who is going to criticise