Home > 21st Century Learning, Educational Leadership > From Pyramids to Balloons…

From Pyramids to Balloons…

Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not wisdom,
Wisdom is not truth

Frank Zappa

For most of the past few thousand years we have used a pyramid as the metaphor for our knowledge and social systems (including networks). The hierarchical structure is well established in our culture to the point where it is hegemonic. Scholars, thinkers and  theorists ranging from T.S. Eliot, Mortimer Adler, Russell Ackoff and, yes, Frank Zappa have all made some reference to what Ackoff called the DIKW Hierarchy or Wisdom Pyramid.  Ackoff explored the dynamic relationship between systems and human behavior, pointing out that, “Individual systems are purposive, knowledge and understanding of their aims can only be gained by taking into account the mechanisms of social, cultural, and psychological systems”

Think about most educational systems, schools and classrooms and you can see this hierarchical structure still in place. Students on the bottom, followed by a diminishing quantity of individuals as we climb. Or, inversely, a large number of students chasing the more scarce amount of knowledge that exists in the teacher’s toolbox of texts and tasks. This all  makes sense, the structure of pyramids are solid, they are built to last and do.

Two things though: we don’t really build them anymore these days and when we did, it was usually to store a dead regent or ruler.

Then,we had the internet come along and all of sudden (as David Weinberger so skillfully points out in Too Big to Know) the pyramids don’t really fit as a metaphor for systems or knowledge. The connections and dynamic, networked interplay that is the modern web has released knowledge from the constraints of paper and expertise and smashed the hierarchy as knowledge is now contained within the network, not at the top of it. The irony of the role that networked media played as a catalyst to the end of the Mubarak era (in Egypt) is just to tasty to resist.

Like a balloon, the knowledge within the net surges and flows within a structure that is pliable and malleable (and accessible to anyone who wishes to pump some air in to it). And now we wait for the inevitable shift to occur in our systems as we adapt to this reality…or rather than wait, shall we set out to challenge the status quo and push this change along?

  1. Jacqui Sandercock
    February 5, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Very interesting! I like the move away from pyramid style thinking. We need classrooms that motivate children to work outside of this pyramid too. To take ownership over their learning and evidence thereof. Two questions though: is the Internet accessible to everyone as you assert? What cultural assumptions underpin that assertion? What can’t kids learn from the Internet?

  2. February 5, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Hey Jacqui,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. the It’s true that there are students who lack Internet access at home (an ever diminishing quantity) however every student has access to the net at school and our communities certainly have the resources to provide universal access. In addition, those schools who have embraced a BYOD approach have found that the overwhelming majority of students beyond grade 5 have a personal device they can use at school. It is also clear that the one item a student will not ‘forget’ at home is their device.

    I don’t believe people learn from the internet; they learn from and with the other people in their networks (just as you and I are right now). Learning is a social process that requires interactions and exposure to a range of ideas- and the web has dramatically increased both of these conditions for everyone. Failing to, or refusing to, embrace this reality in our schools and classrooms is placing our schools in a position where they are becoming increasingly disconnected from, and irrelevant to, the real world we purport to be preparing kids to enter.

    Seth Godin did a great TED talk that relates to this idea a few years back: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/seth_godin_on_the_tribes_we_lead.html

    Brian

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