David McCandless is doing fascinating, award-winning work on informationisbeautiful.net and this diagram is a great example of it. While McCandless acknowledges that the ideas present in the diagram are not particularly new, he demonstrates that his new organization of it proves the power of beautiful, clean design to make complex ideas understandable and then actionable. We often forget that complex understanding is built from smaller units of knowing. In education, we seem to fetishize the base of the pyramid, hence our obsession with high-stakes testing, multiple-choice exams and endlessly fiddly grammatical exercises. To achieve our long-term goals, however, we need to spend much more of our effort moving students up this pyramid rather than grinding away at the base.

A colleague of mine has a way of teaching the mechanics of writing that speaks to the deep wisdom of McCandless’ way of organizing understanding. She speaks to students about “word-level concerns,” “sentence-level concerns” and “paragraph-level concerns,” regarding their writing. This is a powerful way of helping students understand what they are doing in their writing, particularly when it is not effective writing. It helps them become intuitive users of words and discriminating editors of their sentences and paragraphs. Once students have learned the base of the pyramid, it is incumbent upon us as educators to help them orient their thinking to the bigger picture.

Learning in the 21st century is being fundamentally transformed by the ever-present availability of data in the form of Google search, Wikipedia and other sources. Our first responsibility as educators, therefore, must be to resist our old temptation to spend our time and effort at the base of the pyramid. We should be teaching to “knowledge” and “wisdom,” helping students use the data and information they have readily at hand to make sense of the world.

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