Ideas and Information

by Jean Tower

I deas and Information
, by Arno Penzias, Nobel prize winning physicist and former Vice-President of Research for Bell Labs, is a favorite book of mine, one I go back to time and again to revisit some of the concepts Penzias shares about technology, information, learning, and networks. This book was published in 1989, and yet in several passages I find ideas that could have inspired some of today’s authors. I recommend this book, so I am sharing a couple of passages, why the passage is important to me, and what I have read recently that seems to relate.

Information Processing (Chapter 1)
“People can only instruct others in what they themselves know how to do a conscious level, the explicit (as opposed to the intuitive) portions of human cognition” (p. 31). “Computers are most effective in dealing with the kinds of data that translate readily into numbers. As a result, explicitly structured problems that lend themselves to ‘by-the-number’ solutions give programmers the fewest headaches. For example, if the students in high school computing class were assigned to the creation of tic-tac-toe program as a homework assignment most of them would be able to write one. On the other hand, a program that could distinguish between male and female faces in random snapshot would probably earn its author a Ph.D. in computer science. Small wonder, then, that most programs focus on the numerical aspects of problems” (p. 32).

In my work in information technology, this reminds me that programs are just following the instructions of a human being, and therefore, computer programs can be very good at storing and retrieving data, performing rapid calculations, and helping us to share information, but not so good at making judgments (a point Penzias makes clear several times).

In my work as an educator, one who is a proponent of using technology in education, it reminds me that the creativity and art and ideas and original thoughts are in PEOPLE, not in the machines. The machines help us expand our ideas and share our thoughts with many ~ it is a tool to help us (among other things) communicate, collaborate, manipulate information, and juggle things around to create new concepts.

In another section he differentiates between the tasks of “study and replicate” versus “innovate and create.” As an educator, I ask myself if we provide students enough opportunities to innovate and create.

I relate these topics to recent books and presentations by Sir Ken Robinson and Clayton Christensen.

Ideas (Chapter 7)
One of the skills Penzias says that people need to develop is estimating. He cites a great example about his son David being asked by an interviewer (for a job) how many barbers there are in the United States. David makes his calculation based on the number of barber shops that were in his hometown, the population of his hometown, and the population of the United States in order to project out the number of barbers in the entire country. His estimate was 200,000. Later David presented the problem to his dad and Arno used a different algorithm. His estimation was based on money – how many men needed haircuts and how often they got a haircut and how much money a barber would meet to earn in order to make a living. His estimation came out to be about 300,000. The interviewer had yet a third way to calculate. He figured “one haircut per month for each of the hundred million people who get haircuts, and 400 haircuts per month per barber, which works out to be about 250,000” (p. 173). From the US Department of Labor, the actual number of barbers was reported to be just under 100,000.
“While some chains of connections missed the actual answer a wider margin than others, there is only one wrong method for dealing with such problems: trying to memorize answers to all questions one might be asked. My son’s interviewer was looking for someone who could find ways of probing an unfamiliar idea, rather than someone who relied on memorized facts alone” (p. 174).

From the first chapter we learn what computers are good for and what other tasks really require humans: judgment, creativity, and innovation. Here in chapter seven is a corollary lesson for education – let’s pay attention to reasoning, problem solving, and the ability to probe unfamiliar ideas, rather than memorization. Let’s craft our work with students to reflect deep thought and avoid assessments that rely primarily on reciting back what they have read in a text book.

There are so many authors, edubloggers, educators, and speakers who reflect this idea today that it is difficult to name just a few. Certainly, Jamie McKenzie and Don Tapscott and Will Richardson come to mind.

The Human Element (Chapter 9)
This chapter starts with the statement that “Our world grows more interdependent every day” (p.200). Penzias then provides several examples of impressive scientific research – Nobel
Prize winning research – that occurred in small labs with modest budgets and few scientists. “None required massive organizational support or direction.” He concludes, “Small is beautiful.” He goes on to explain, however, that a key element of their individual successes was the capability to “exchange ideas” (p. 205). “Access to ideas makes all the difference.” Further, he says, “I have found that managing successful research depends far more on ensuring the flow of ideas between individuals than on rigid direction from the top.” He goes on to describe technology to facilitate this information flow – a decentralized networking model.

Again, this chapter speaks to me both as an educator and an information technology (IT) professional. How many of us in K-12 education were thinking, back in the late eighties, of decentralized networks and using technology to facilitate idea and information sharing? His words are nearly predictors of the use that many educators make of the internet today, with blogs and wikis. Are we committed, as IT administrators, to a focus on facilitating the exchange of ideas rather than some rigid top-down model of technology use and integration in our schools? I can only say that I try, in my job, to keep these concepts in mind.

I think if you read the book you will find many more nuggets that you too, will want to share.

Here are a few more notable quotes from Ideas and Information .

“Oversimplification and rigidity of inputs to decisions greatly predates computers”

“Computers act mainly to strengthen existing human capabilities”

“‘Deciding’ means acting on information”

“Meaningful work strives to make a meaningful difference in some aspect of the world we live in”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

fivbert August 4, 2009 at 11:09 pm

RIGHT ON! Thinking, not memorization! Forget the teaching to the test, if we can!

Jean Tower August 5, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Thanks for your comment – I also really enjoyed your blog post on the idea. Nice emphasis on the big idea of thinking over memorizing.

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