Monthly Archives: April 2014

Sisyphean literacy

This post about the difficulty of uncovering the source of a “fact” (scare quotes intentional) has been rattling around in my brain since I read it.

The “fact” in question:

Research at 3M Corporation concluded that we process visuals 60000 times faster than text.

is never definitively sourced, but due to repetition it achieves the ring of truthiness (I’m aware that by including it here I may be part of the problem, but my readership is small enough that I feel okay about it).

As I read the post I couldn’t help but wonder what other oft-repeated “facts” we accept without questioning–“facts” about “digital natives” with an intuitive understanding of technology, “facts” about the Internet rewiring our brains, “facts” about students being more distracted/shallow/self-absorbed.

What “facts” do we accept about our students without questioning? What “facts” do we let students accept about themselves without questioning? How often do we investigate these claims? How often do we even question them? Do we question what these claims even mean?

The ironic thing is that it is actually a rather ludicrous claim in the first place. What do we mean by “information being processed” be it visual or text? Does it mean recognizing visual patterns, facial recognition which studies do show the brain can do very fast. Is that information? What does it mean to be “processed”? Recognized or understood” Is it conceptual? Do we see knowledge visually?

I also couldn’t help but think about how difficult it is to teach information literacy and research skills to students when there are so many examples of this kind of “truthiness” out there–and that people in positions of authority are able to cite them without consequences. Sure, this “fact” got called out in this instance, but there are thousands of examples of “facts” that go uncorrected and unchallenged, and so become “true”–or at least truthy.

One could make a full-time job out of correcting factually-dubious posts on Facebook.

There are so many more examples of things that look plausible (or confirm our instincts) that are much more difficult to confirm or disprove. It is a Sisyphean effort to push back against that onslaught of unchecked information. How do we teach students to investigate these “facts” when we don’t ask the same of ourselves or the sources we use?

There are a lot of dubious “facts” about students out there, and a lot of dubious “facts” for our students to discover about all sorts of topics. The least we can do, as educators, is investigate and question the popular-if-factually-dubious narratives about our students before we rely on them to inform our practice.

Pushing back is hard, but easier if we push together.