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03.05.17About that Tweet: The Difference Between Information & Knowledge

Recently I posted on Twitter a picture a friend had sent me of work a young student did in the classroom.  The post went a little viral (or as viral as something can in my tiny corner of the universe) and people seemed to interpret it in different ways. I thought I’d write a quick post to explain it a bit more.  First here the picture:

GW image.jpeg

I tweeted: “Finally, proof that knowledge doesn’t matter when you can just look anything up on google.”

I wrote that because I see “experts” and technologists and people with Ted talks saying this kind of thing all the time. Facts don’t matter. If you need it, just look it up. But this picture explains why this is erroneous logic. Knowledge is different from information. Knowledge contextualizes information.

So while it is true that there is more information available now than ever before, it is also true that knowledge is more important than ever before.  The student who wrote this–no I do not think it’s funny–is doing the equivalent of looking something up on google. He/she is encountering new information that he or she knows very little about. And so he or she has precious little knowledge about what a plausible answer might be.

Knowledge is defined here as a body of facts about the world stored in long-term memory and therefore always at your disposal. Without knowledge you have no idea what information matters or even sometimes what it means when you encounter it.  Knowledge allows you to connect information to other facts to form an idea or contextualize it or assess its credibility as you encounter it. And so the explosion of information in society only makes having knowledge–facts you have in long-term memory, facts like what is a plausible answer for who was the first president of the United States–MORE important.

18 Responses to “About that Tweet: The Difference Between Information & Knowledge”

  1. A. Librarian
    March 5, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Sadly, many administrators feel that libraries and librarians are superfluous and expendable because information is now readily available with a Google search and a tap. This post is a perfect example of what is wrong with that thinking. Kids need to be taught to critically think and interpret the information they find online. That is what librarians do! The lack of background knowledge is a serious deficit. I recently taught a lesson on how to evaluate websites using a realistic but “fake” website. Some of the students did not recognize that Christopher Columbus was not born in 1951. They simply accepted it as fact because they did not KNOW and did not connect it with their learning about explorers. They are taught to check authorship. But their suspicions were not aroused by a statement that the author lived on the coast in Wyoming, because they didn’t know where Wyoming is and that it doesn’t HAVE a coast! You are so right…..Awash in a sea of information, but little knowledge to be found.

  2. Sue
    March 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    I’ve managed to trace the image source back to this website in case you wanted to attribute the source:

    • Doug Lemov
      March 6, 2017 at 7:01 pm

      thanks. hard to tell much about the context of the original and where it comes from. don’t think it changes the core ofthe argument- that when you lack background knowledge you are prone to dramatic misunderstandings; that suggesting we can just look up what we need when we need it is deeply problematic, but of course some readers may choose to be more wary since we can’t see the whole document.

      • Sue
        March 7, 2017 at 10:28 am

        Saying it was “work a young student did in the classroom” might be problematic, since we can’t verify the source beyond Reddit. Did your friend say where he got it from – was it written by a child in his class?

        The worksheet in the image has the information needed written directly above the question (you can find the original here so my impression is that the child’s problem is with reading comprehension rather than with background knowledge.

        • Doug Lemov
          March 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm

          the two are not necessarily–or even likely–that different. background knowledge correlates strongly to reading comprehension assessments and this is why- you can’t understand what you know nothing about

          • March 7, 2017 at 9:13 pm

            But assuming that the child clearly had enough knowledge to understand the question, isn’t the most likely situation here that they did that naive thing of reading the question first before reading the text, prior to scanning for the most likely answer…? Yes, a basic knowledge of copyright conventions and the word ‘images’ might have given them the clue, but also basic skills in how to approach reading a text…?

          • Doug Lemov
            March 21, 2017 at 10:49 am

            sure. though “naive” is really another word for ‘not having enough background knowledge to understand what is obvious to those who do.” at least i think

  3. March 6, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    I think your overall message Doug about the ocean of information we are now surrounded by requiring more contextualised background knowledge than ever before is very powerful.
    However, surely for this child the problem is either the inability to scan the evidence before their eyes, or the inability to read a sentence as complex as “George Washington was the first president of the United States”?

    • Doug Lemov
      March 6, 2017 at 7:03 pm

      thanks for this point. possibly. but i think we are talking about two different effects deriving from the same cause. research is pretty clear that background knowledge is a clear driver of reading comprehension.

    • Doug Lemov
      March 21, 2017 at 10:58 am

      that seems like it could be a factor. i don’t find that an especially complex sentence. if by “the inability to scan the evidence before her eyes” you mean a perceptive problem that seems like a bigger conjecture than “the inability to understand the evidence before her eyes” in other words not enough knowledge for context.

  4. March 6, 2017 at 6:53 pm


    I absolutely love your depiction of knowledge contextualizing information. This image and student answer is such a perfect nugget of teaching and learning struggles, and I appreciate your explanation and response in providing context for teachers and students in this digital age!

    • Doug Lemov
      March 6, 2017 at 7:04 pm

      Thanks. Glad it’s useful. There are obviously a lot of likely causes at work in an error like this but the assumption that we can make sense of what’s in front of us without extensive stores of background knowledge is, i think, clearly erroneous and probably dangerous.

  5. Debra Kidd
    March 6, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    It seems that the image comes from a worksheet designed for Grade 1 pupils. Many grade one pupils would struggle to read the words president and George, perhaps also Washington. They may be able to decode some or even all of the words “president’ and “washington” as at least they are phonetically plausible for a 6 year old, but they’d need to know a) what a president was, b) that George is a first name and Washington is not just a city but can also be the name of a person. If this is a comprehension task then it is not helpful for children to know the answer in advance so to have been taught the name of the first president would make the purpose of comprehending the accompanying text redundant. Also if the purpose was to find the answer in the text provided then Getty Images is a plausible answer given that children are often taught to look for names/descriptions of images in the text directly beneath and the fact that both words start with capitals may well make a child think they indicated a name – especially if in their community, unusual names were, well, not unusual. So there’s a design flaw in the caption if the purpose was for comprehension. If it’s a factual recall task then the answer shouldn’t be written on the paper in the first place and so there’s a design flaw in the worksheet in relation to that purpose too. So what is it at the end of the day? A very poorly designed worksheet from an organisation called Readworks. The fact that it has come from a commercial organisation makes it doubly poor. Perhaps it might have been more appropriate to write a blog about the importance of properly considering purpose, age appropriateness and identifying possible misconceptions when designing learning materials.

    • Doug Lemov
      March 21, 2017 at 10:47 am

      well you of course could write that blog. to me it’s a great example of how when you read without background knowledge you have no means to make judgments of reasonableness or context. so you would not know that your answer of getty images was completely implausible. second you seem to confuse my posting an example of what i believe is students reading without context with my advocating for the quality of the assignment. this is not the case. but none of the flaws that you point out change the core of the argument for me. thanks for your comment.

  6. Jim Hunziker
    March 7, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    This is also interesting in the context of AI and machine learning. I’d be entirely unsurprised to see something like Google interpret that image the same way.

  7. Chris Patterson
    March 13, 2017 at 1:08 am

    I think its a spoof. I would like to see the evidence that this is a genuine error by a real student.

    • Doug Lemov
      March 21, 2017 at 10:43 am

      could be. i don’t think so but you’re welcome to believe as you wish of course.

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