Tips To Manage Information Overload In Children
Building Understanding in Our Homeschools Amidst an Information Glut
The world is flooded with information today. The treasury of the world’s knowledge is available with a search and a click on a scale never imagined by our ancestors. Despite this, there is a sense that understanding is as elusive as ever, and the glut of information has muddied the waters of knowledge rather than making it clearer. The flood of information threatens to overwhelm us by sheer magnitude, making it challenging to form a big-picture understanding of how everything fits together.
In this article, I will address the relationship between information and understanding, followed by pointers for ensuring your children don’t drown in the ocean of data.
Information and Understanding
Let’s begin by exploring the difference between information and understanding.
Information is raw content. It is the material “stuff” with which an education is constructed: the data, numbers, vocabulary words, concepts, equations, the terms, the dates, and so on. The Internet has put the collective information of the human race at our finger tips, such that our current era is often referred to as the “Information Age.”
Understanding has to do with the ability to synthesize information. It is the way our minds make connections to see “the big picture.” Understanding pertains to the interrelatedness of concepts, the conclusions we draw from them, and their implications. It enables us to arrange information in such a way that translates it into meaningful insights about the world.
When we educate children, we generally hope to empower them with the latter. Too often, however, we end up feeding them the former. Today’s children are drowning in information but starved for understanding. The ubiquity of technology bombards them with limitless information while they struggle to find meaningful connections between the data points. Education happens when the relationship between points of information is understood, the quintessential “Aha!” moment when a light turns on in the learner’s head.
Some Notable Examples
Ideally, a good educator will help students make these connections. However, sometimes, we can make it worse by throwing too much at students and expecting them to sort it all out.
I keenly remember a lesson I learned from my very first year of teaching. We were discussing St. Thomas Aquinas in a middle school history class. Aquinas is admittedly heavy material for middle school, so this was already a lot for them to process. For homework, I asked the students to go online and find some information about St. Thomas and read through some of his writings. My pastor was standing nearby when I assigned this, and he came up to me after class to express his disappointment with the assignment. “You can’t just send kids out to do research without more guidance,” he told me. “You didn’t tell them what to look for or focus on, didn’t give them any hints on where to find it, didn’t suggest reliable websites, didn’t tell them how much they need to read or what they should be getting out of it. Those kids are going to be totally lost.”
He was absolutely right! When I introduce students to Aquinas today, I assign them a specific chapter, tell them where to find it, or else provide them with a file myself, and tell them, “Pay attention to such-and-such themes. Be prepared to discuss X.” When giving them the information, I also give them a structure to build an understanding of what they are reading and what they are supposed to get out of the assignment.
We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking a student is learning just because he or she is reviewing content.
I recently saw a fascinating article on the Futurism website discussing young people’s relationship with technology. Entitled “Gen Z is Apparently Baffled by Basic Technology,” the article debunks the stereotype that young people are “good at technology” because they use it all the time. Just because young people use technology all the time does not mean they understand how it works. They click some prompts, and the device gives them what they are looking for. This is a far cry from understanding how the device functions.
The Futurism article notes that employers are consequently surprised to discover that Gen Z workers struggle to understand the interfaces on copy machines and other common devices that require an intuitive approach. Ironically, older generations demonstrate a better understanding of how technology works. When many of us were young, digital technology was new, and we were introduced to the conceptual framework for how these devices work. Younger generations were raised with digital tech and accepted it as a given. This is why, for example, I know the command prompt and how to use it, while my Gen Z kids—who are on computers more than me—are ignorant of the command prompt and its function.
Applied to our homeschooling, what this means is that we must not assume a child is growing in understanding merely because they are consuming information. We need to ensure that our approach is geared towards not only learning facts but truly understanding how the facts fit together so the content becomes meaningful—in other words, so they are truly educated.
It is better to cover less content but to do it more thoroughly. Teach for mastery. Rather than structuring your schedule around an arbitrary goal (e.g., “I need to finish the book by December!”), resolve that you will not move on to the next subject until your child has thoroughly mastered the content of the current subject. Think in terms of building a solid foundation at each level, which will, in turn, be capable of supporting the next level. Mastery means the student “knows the content” and is a master of it. He knows it inside and out and demonstrates a working knowledge of how all the information fits together.
Facts serve concepts, not vice versa. Education is full of factoids. The Latin feminine ending is -a. The Battle of Agincourt happened in 1415. A2 + B2=C2. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants transform light into chemical energy. These kinds of facts are the “stuff” of education. But education is not about merely knowing these facts. When we truly understand a subject, the facts are building blocks of larger concepts.
For example, to profit from the fact that “The Latin feminine ending is -a,” we must already understand the concept of declensions and grammatical persons (first person, second person, third person, etc.). Any fact is only comprehensible within a larger constellation of facts that, when synthesized, make up a concept. The goal of education is for students to understand concepts. The facts serve to illustrate the concepts. The facts are useful only insofar as they help students see the “big picture.” Therefore, ensure that your teaching of facts is always wedded to an overarching concept so students understand why they are learning what they are learning. How do the facts serve the broader concept?
Incorporate critical thinking exercises. Critical thinking is often associated with writing and reading, but it is a skill that should be employed in every content area. A critical thinking exercise is any exercise where a student needs to use what they’ve learned to make inferences and draw connections between information points. We already do this with young kids when we give them pattern recognition exercises or connect-the-dots, essentially asking them to take what they already know and intuit how it can help them deduce some unknown variable. Older kids still need critical thinking exercises; think of it as mental connect-the-dots.
There is an infinitude of critical thinking exercises, so we can hardly explore them here, but in general, you want to incorporate exercises that require your child to apply what they already know towards solving something they don’t know. It is an exercise that requires them to synthesize the information they have learned to solve a new problem. If they can solve it, they demonstrate understanding; if they cannot, this tells you they have not mastered the concept, and more review is needed. (See Homeschool Connections online middle and high school logic & critical thinking courses.)
If you can keep your information wedded to a solid conceptual framework that helps them build connections between facts, you are doing more than any website, or Wiki could ever do.
Do you have tips to share or questions to ask? I invite you to join us in our Catholic Homeschool Connections Community and start a conversation.