02 August 2006


We're lost without an information education

A few years ago, one chapter of the American Society of Indexers created a bumper sticker: "If you don't teach your children about indexing, who will?" Now that my daughter is old enough to repeat words if I ask her to -- "Say cucumber." "Kuku." -- I tried one of my job words on her.

"Say index," I said.
"Icks," she replied.

Given how my colleague Rachel taught her three-year-old to recite how bad a book is if it doesn't have an index, it seems I have some work to do. My daughter shouldn't respond to indexing with icks.

In the United States, children learn about indexes when they are old enough to visit the school library and get instruction on how to use its resources. And while many of the printed card catalogs of my youth have been replaced with computer systems, students are still taught how to use the indexes in the backs of some books. After that, their indexing education is complete. They probably never talk about indexing with the librarian again.

Though brief, even this index education is extremely important. Instinctively, children unfamiliar with indexes will look up information just as adults use a dictionary to look up spellings. For example, if you think deceive is spelled decieve, you'll go to the dictionary to look up decieve. Not finding it, you'll look for a neighboring word that looks somewhat similar, and discover the correct "deceive." In other words, you'll enter the dictionary looking for one word, but be satisfied with another. This is how children use indexes, too. They'll look up "Civil War," not find it, and be satisfied with "civil engineering." Then, of course, they'll fail.

(It is worth noting that adults demonstrate this behavior with indexes, too. I might attempt to look up "potatoes" in a cookbook, yet be satisfied with a result of "potatoes and yams.")

Meanwhile, adults don't instinctively understand the metaphor of things inside things inside things. The well-known marushka dolls, in which a large bowling-pin-shaped doll holds a smaller doll that holds another doll, and so on, is endlessly fascinating for children. As adults, we're fascinated by the plots to suspense novels. Each step along our way -- an uncovered doll, a turned page -- is built upon the past in a linear way. We follow events, from first to last, in linear sequence, and we succeed.

Hierarchical organization, in contrast, has no obvious place in human existence. To survive, it's enough to separate things into only two groups at a time: dangerous vs. safe, edible vs. inedible, alive vs. dead, something we like vs. something we don't like, family vs. nonfamily. As intelligent creatures we might create a few more categories at a time -- family, co-workers, non-work friends, acquaintances, strangers -- but rarely do we construct them into layers like "people I know > people I like > people I like to work with." Layering is completely unnecessary in our daily lives. Perhaps it is for this reason that human beings cannot instinctively organize things in a hierarchical way -- in the same way we can't tell the (very big) spatial difference between one million miles and one billion miles. To do these things, we need training.

You know, we don't do math naturally, either. Our instincts tell us the difference between one item, two items, a few items, many items, and very many items, but that's it. We also understand more and fewer. But we don't have an instinct that tells us how to add or multiply, let alone solve calculus problems. (If you don't believe me, then I dare you to cut a pizza or a cake into five equal slices without making a mistake.)

Today, we have math classes. Before math was taught as its own course, certain elements of math were taught within specific subjects. Shipbuilders and shoemakers learned enough math to do their jobs, and that was it. The idea of teaching math independent of application must have seemed very strange. What good is shipbuilders' math to shoemakers? But eventually, the math-proficient individuals in each field spoke to one another and discovered exactly what they had in common: a need to add numbers together, a need to calculate weight, and a need for geometry. Now math is an integral part of standardized testing, which means students aren't allowed to graduate from school without proving themselves in basic math skills, separate from their application.

So why aren't we teaching information the way we teach math? Information classification exists in every field of human exploration, from literature (divisions of author style or message) to sales (styles of negotiation), and from biology (life classifications) to auto mechanics (systems of function). If a student is going to learn anything about anything, he should learn a little something about how information itself fits together.

The impact a basic, application-independent information education can have is astounding. As an example, consider driving directions. In general, we give directions to people in a linear order, something that makes sense given how we travel. Here is how you can get to the post office near my home: "(1) Take route 95 until exit 26. (2) Take route 2 East until exit 59. (3) Take route 60 into Arlington Centre. (4) Turn left onto Massachusetts Avenue. (5) After three blocks, turn right onto Court Street. (6) The post office is on your left at the end of the street." As I said before, you don't need information hierarchy to survive; following these linear directions is quite easy. But suppose you make a wrong turn, or miss your exit? To find your way back to the path I provided, you need to know something about the geographic layers that make up these regions: "greater Boston > north Boston suburbs > town of Arlington > Arlington Centre area > Court Street." You need a hierarchical knowledge of the area! Put another way, what many of us refer to as "a great sense of direction" is actually "a deep understanding of relevant geographical hierarchies." That's why someone who knows their way around New York City will get lost in the woods: they learned how NYC streets fit together (NYC > Manhattan > Upper East Side > etc.) but learned nothing about forests. Get my point? Sense of direction is taught and learned.

It's time for us to start teaching information construction in schools. We're lost without it.

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