Friday, January 16, 2009

Refinding The Index

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Refinding The Index
There has been doubt hung on the worth of past learning over the years. Recently, Bill Farren put into question the value to young students of what has been learnt by ‘old’ teachers. There has been much new debate about the efficacy of content, which presumably is a record of past learning. Out of a plethora of bellicose discussion came the notion that the use of textbooks, whether paper or digital, is now past its use-by-date.

A million hits:

How much of this has come about without real thought being given to the usefulness of past learning? Perhaps it is motivated by other factors not at all related to the worth of what has been learnt.

Could it be that the huge amount of content, the ease that this can be displayed through in-your-face millions of hits on Google, has driven our pedagogues to a state of desperation? Has the burgeoning quantity of data forced teachers, and teaching authorities, to swing the pendulum away from teaching content, in a bid that’s really centred on self-protection, albeit perhaps unintentional?

What’s on the cutting room floor?

It’s known that copious decision-making tires the mind, causing wrong decisions to be made, often at times when the correct choice is crucial. But when teachers have to select a useful curriculum from the great unwashed heap of knowledge, the decision-making that has to take place is profuse.

Perhaps the use of Occam’s Razor in education is becoming commonplace, so that all problematic issues, including content, finish on the cutting room floor. It certainly seems to be the growing practice when the challenging issue is student behaviour. Perhaps it’s not the content that’s the problem, but the way it’s being selected for learners.

Access to content:

Textbooks have been subject to makeovers for decades. Broad indicators of the changes can be examined without any real understanding of the knowledge the books contain. Indexing, as one specific indicator, has undergone dramatic change in the last 50 years, from the algebraic nightmare of numerically indexed paragraphs within chapters, to the complete absence of an index.

Mid-twentieth century textbooks had contents pages, traditionally near the beginning of the book, and often had an index at the rear. Latterly, the style and format used for the layout of content pages and index pages were at the whim of the publisher. Many formats were designed for looks rather than utility.

Whose responsibility?

It was not uncommon for a textbook to have an index that learners couldn’t or wouldn’t use. A textbook with such an index is as useful as one with no index at all. I recall having several textbooks like that in the 70s. They were good resources for what they contained. Their indexing was so bad, however, that I had to develop my own system for refinding the information. I’m still doing that with ebooks today.

Apparently, the onus to take charge of indexing, as well as the refind that Tony Karrer talks about, is being placed firmly on the learner. There’s no doubt that being responsible for refind is becoming a learning necessity - almost an indispensable learning skill for those who have accumulated the so-called 21st century skills.

Though I don’t doubt the usefulness of the skills, I wonder how much the need for some of them is being impelled by a move away from traditional indexing in learning resources, both digital and printed, that are being built for use in schools and tertiary institutions.

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Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

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