To Clarify Add Detail

I bounced from this O’Reilly post to this Edward Tufte video on the iPhone. It’s a big file but fairly short and worth listening to if just for the last few lines.

To clarify add detail.

Clutter and overload are not an attribute of information. They are failures of design.

If the information is in chaos don’t start throwing out information, instead fix the design.

This doesn’t just apply to software or visuals. I know I’ve tried to explain things to people and when I see I’m failing have over simplified. I think that’s a mistake. It wasn’t because I was giving them too much that they weren’t understanding, it was because I was giving them information in the wrong way. Communication can be designed just like a visual.

I think our education system is a system that is/was in chaos. Our response has been to throw out information, to standardize everything, to make testing so ABCD simplified that we don’t really have to think about the design.

The perfect example is the “sandwich” writing style that students are coming into college with. I can see it as a way to teach introductory writing but because of the way standardized writing samples are graded the style carries right over into high school. Students then end up in college writing standardized dreck with the belief that it’s awesome. It’s not.

I’ve been tutoring college writers for about 7 years and I’ve seen the decay, the loss of voice, the adoption of really artificial and forced “introductory sentences.” It’s ugly. I can’t imagine what long time professors must feel.

Now schools are starting to fail according to NCLB (I’m sure we’ll all be at 100% passing by 2013). What’s going to happen? My bet is we’ll continue to simplify the information while ignoring the design. Expect more rote memorization and more robotic writing.

Damn that’s depressing. Someone cheer me up.

7 thoughts on “To Clarify Add Detail

  1. Tom,
    I think this is a time of transitions, so don’t despair.

    I never really thought about design the way you just communicated it, and it makes great sense.

    My feeling is that what is happening in education is the surface of the frozen river. Seems like that’s all there is to the river…but maybe there is a raging current just below the surface. I have said it a number of times; but I believe it to be so…the loss of voice and the regimentation we are feeling now; is like the 1950’s. If you took a snapshot at the time, you’d think “Oh crap! this conformity is going to get worse and worse!” But the ’50’s gave way to the 1960’s.

    The seeds of the ’60’s were there in the ’50’s. I think it is so, now.

    You guys are doing great work.

    in gratitude,

  2. Think of all the students out there that are writing on their blogs, wikis, and social networks (alright, so most of the SNS stuff is a bad example). All of that writing going on outside of the classroom; the kids are teaching themselves. Just like all of the other secrets they hide from parents and teachers, they’re writing on fan fiction sites (Harry Potter being one of the most popular on the net at the moment), blogs (one of my fifth graders started his own blog AND wiki), and they’re even writing their own collaborative stories (

  3. @Pete – I hope you’re right and I certainly don’t have the historical perspective to know. I like the idea of a raging current and I’ve never liked cold weather so the sooner the ice melts the better.

    @Dina – thanks that does look like a big step in the right direction. Now I want to see a school system embrace that down to the testing level. The prevalence of robotic writing testing leads to more robotic writing teaching.

    My real problem is that the students who do well academically are fairly OK, it’s the lower level students that end up writing like robots and get rewarded for it. They are then punished in college for behavior that got A’s in HS. That’s a sucky position to put kids in.

    @Ben – I agree there’s lots of writing going on of various qualities. Where things get messed up is when that writing is not deemed legitimate by our school system and is effectively banned from schools by filters etc. It makes school less and less relevant and increases the lack of engagement.

    I also wonder how many kids aren’t doing all that. There are lots of them who don’t know what a wiki is. You deal with some groups and you have an engagement with online publishing but often it’s with different tools that aren’t going to translate as well into increased skills at other things- like careers. Worse, in some ways, they don’t see how to use the skills they have developed in other ways and that’s in part because they’ve seen their actions “criminalized” by the very people who are supposed to be developing those skills.

    Or something.

    Feeling ranty lately I guess. My appologies.


  4. Don’t despair, Tom. There are still those of us who are slowly making a change in the way teachers think about writing and conformity. I am now working with a HS teacher who came to me wanting to find a way to keep students from plagiarizing in their research writing. We ended up exploring some authentic writing assignments and she’s now having student pairs do research papers within GoogleDocs. They finished reading Voltaire’s Candide and were assigned chapters to research the theme of Fact vs. Fiction. Their final product will be a Fact vs Fiction GoogleMap with the locations of Candide’s travels serving as waypoints for their research. The kids know their map will be published on the web, so they take seriously the implications of cheating in a way that no artificial “turn in your paper and only your teacher will ever see it” report could ever do.

    Yesterday the students showed their teacher how to find pictures using WikiMedia Commons and presented a reasoned argument as to why their “no wikipedia ever” teacher should rethink her position…

    Today the teacher came to me and said that she spent last night reviewing their work online and made comments as some of the students were working in GoogleDocs. She was amazed to watch them write at night, take her comments into consideration and rewrite – all from their homes as she participated virtually.

    All this from a 20 year veteran teacher who came to me wanting to keep kids from copying and pasting their writing assignments.

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