aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

Can We Learn from Information?

Posted by Ellen on July 29, 2011

In a recent blog post over at Midcourse Corrections, Jeff Hurt wrote that “Information isn’t education.” While that may be true in the purest sense, we shouldn’t conclude (as I posted in my comment) that it means people can’t learn from information.

According to George Siemens, a greatly respected thought leader and educator, “Learning is now happening through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.” He goes on to write: “know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).” (You can see these comments in context in this article on Connectivism.)

I’ve called this “the Einstein method” for many, many years. “You don’t have to memorize all the rules of grammar,” I used to tell my college students, “you just have to know where to find the rules.” I taught them how to identify the kinds of grammar problems that plagued them and where to locate the info in their grammar book. In this way I provided individualized training to 25 students rather than forcing all of them to slog through a lot of stuff they didn’t need. I called it the Einstein method because one story about the genius goes that when he was asked for his phone number he said he didn’t know it but they could look it up in the phone book. He believed that keeping his head free of stuff you could find in other places meant he could focus on other things. It certainly worked for him, didn’t it?!?

People are doing this all the time, every day: need to learn how to change that tire on your Gary Fisher bicycle? There’s probably a You Tube video on that. Want to brush up on your high school Spanish? There are podcast feeds for that.

How many times have *you* Googled a question so you could get an answer that helped solve a problem?

Thought so.

It’s true that information is static. Information is data.

But here’s the thing: we are learners. We have learned to learn. We know how to access that information and apply it to our needs.

Here’s another example. My husband and I travel all the time. We’re constantly in new environments. We’re weather fanatics. We have a NOAA radio that has occasionally startled us with its ear-blasting tone and a warning about severe thunderstorms and tornadoes (!). That’s information.

I grab my road atlas. I look up the state we’re in, find our location. I check the county and neighboring counties. This is information, too. It’s just sitting there, print on the page, not doing anything except letting me look at it.

But I’m doing more than looking at it. I’m processing it. I’m going through all kinds of mental steps: “This is where we are. This is the county we’re in. These are the counties nearby. The NOAA warning said the storm is in that county and it’s moving in this direction at 25 miles per hour.” I’m thinking about whether we’re in the same county or one nearby. Whether we’re in the direct line of the storm or of anywhere near it’s expected to pass. I’m creating a mental picture of how that storm is moving, based on the NOAA report. I make a decision about whether we’re in danger or not.

Did I learn anything? Yes. I learned what county we’re in and the counties nearby. I learned there was a storm in a certain county of the state. I gained knowledge from the information from the NOAA broadcast and the road atlas.

Did I act on what I learned? Yes. I might have reacted by closing windows, checking the ceiling vents to be sure they were closed, too. I might have decided to go on a bicycle ride because the storm was in another part of the state and moving away from us. I applied what I learned to my situation.

Am I belaboring a point? Probably.

We shouldn’t make assumptions about the value of certain types of content. Information is a type of content. We learn from information in various ways. To ignore the role “information” plays in training and education is to miss a big chunk of how we process and use data within our learning, assimilation and application of knowledge and skills.

Do we still need to create learning events that promote active learning? Discovery? Construction of meaning? Eventual application of skills? Of course! Just be careful not to throw out the education baby with the information bathwater.

Should associations still put smart money behind their educational efforts? Absolutely!

Should they have a professional educator on staff — someone who brings expertise in adult learning, instructional and curriculum design, e-learning, and training methodologies? Of course!

Should organizations implement “train the trainer” types of programs to provide volunteer content leaders, education committee members, and others with the skills and knowledge they need to develop and lead effective educational events? No doubt about it.

There’s a place for those white papers and research reports that association execs love to tout as part of keeping their members “educated.”

It’s up to us to help them recognize the information that should be redesigned for delivery in a learning environment, and information that’s valuable reference information.

We have to be clear. We have to be consistent. We have to be patient. Eventually they’ll come around.


4 Responses to “Can We Learn from Information?”

  1. […] Can We Learn from Information? In a recent blog post over at Midcourse Corrections, Jeff Hurt wrote that “Information isn’t education.&# While that may be true in the purest sense, we shouldn’t conclude (as I posted in my comment) that it means people can’t learn from information. Source: […]

  2. Mary Thompson said


    Those are good insights. From the perspective of a social psychologist your personal weather example is right on target:
    – we intake data through our senses and mull over when it means in the context of how we acquired it;
    – once we have a working definition of the situation, we either act on it without delay (see black smoke in hallway, head for fire exit) or we stash in in our mental filing cabinets for future use (flat-bottomed gray-green clouds and very still air may be harbingers of tornadoes);
    – once the data are perceived, processed and stashed, knowledge has been acquired

    Note that a delay between data acquisition, processing it mentally into knowledge and acting on that knowledge introduces the possibility of a time lag. Further, new information about the same general situation or phenomenon will add to, subtract from or confirm the existing knowledge. Thus, information is not static! Finally, a conventional definition of learning is that it is a permanent change in behavior, although the lag model suggests that change does not have to be immediate.

    Mary Thompson

  3. […] Can We Learn from Information? In a recent blog post over at Midcourse Corrections, Jeff Hurt wrote that "Information isn't education." While that may be true in the purest sense, we shouldn't conclude (as I posted in my comment… Source: […]

  4. Ellen said

    Mary — Thanks so much for stopping by the aLearning blog and providing further support to the “information contributes to learning” theme. When I was organizing educational events, I one of the complaints I heard most often was that the instructors/facilitators weren’t providing enough time for “reflection.” It was a hard sell back to those in charge of the agenda that they needed to build in time for learners to process what they were experiencing. I’m *still* trying to make that sell, as you can see 🙂

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