The Jeopardy! Paradox

"Filming Jeopardy!" flickr photo by jurvetson shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license


"The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you do with what you know." - Tony Wagner


If you're like me, you probably grew up watching Jeopardy! as a child.  I remember watching it every weeknight with my parents.  I was so impressed when my parents would get a correct answer, but I was even more impressed by the contestants on the game show.  I was amazed by how much knowledge they had.  I always thought they were so smart.  

Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, contestants on Jeopardy! obtained a highly valued skill—the ability to absorb information, construct knowledge, and retrieve facts quickly.  Ken Jennings is arguably the best person on Earth to be able to do this, as he currently holds the record for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy! with 74 consecutive wins.  In fact, he is so good at retrieving information, I like to call him the "Golden Retriever."  While this is still an important skill, I don't think that it's quite as important as it was before the internet came along.  Nowadays, anyone can easily Google the answers to most of the questions on the show, which is an entirely different skill set that requires information literacy

According to Skyline College, information literacy is "the ability to find, evaluate, organize, use, and communicate information in all its various formats, most notably in situations requiring decision making, problem solving, or the acquisition of knowledge." Put simply, it is the skill of acquiring knowledge in order to answer questions, make decisions, or solve problems.  And in today's world, I believe that this skill—one that focuses on the process of learning—is more important than the actual knowledge that is gained.

Because of this, I believe that the definition of the word "smart" has evolved.  People have historically interpreted the definition of "smart" as intelligence, or the amount of knowledge someone contains. However, I would argue that the word "smart" should now be defined as having the intellectual and emotional capacity to individually and collaboratively solve problems.  And it takes a "smart" person to thrive in a global economy that is constantly evolving, and where the demands of the workplace have shifted in entirely new directions.  

For example, to be successful today, one must be able to apply their knowledge, skills, and experience to novel situations and complex problems.  What's more, we need to leverage our interpersonal, social-emotional skills so that we can learn to communicate and collaborate together.  However, our schools have not been able to collectively keep up with the rapid, global changes that our students need to be able to navigate in order to be successful. This is because our education system is still primarily grounded in teaching students facts and skills that were largely applicable during what Daniel Pink calls the "Information Age." 

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Pink claims, "We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what's rising in its place, the Conceptual Age" (Pink, 2005).  Pink goes on to explain that the arrival of desktop PCs and the automation of business processes have heightened the value of two categories of human skills.  The first is called expert thinking—solving new problems for which there are no routine solutions. The other is complex communication—persuading, explaining, and in other ways conveying a particular interpretation of information (Pink, 2005).  Therefore, our schools should be intentionally integrating skills into our programs, policies, and pedagogies that promote expert thinking and complex communication—skills that Pink refers to as "right-brain" skills.

Pink uncovers the growing importance that right-brain skills now have in our world.  And by right-brain skills, I am referring to skills such as creativity, design, empathy, pattern recognition, synthesis, and conceptual understanding. The reason for this is because information is now so ubiquitous and accessible that it becomes more important how we apply this information, as opposed to how we acquire it. Pink articulates this point when he claims, "When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact" (Pink, 2005).  

In his research, Pink backs up his claim with employment data regarding right-brain skills that have shown to be more advantageous in today's workplace when he writes: "Ten years of employment data have discovered that the largest gains have been in jobs that require people skills and emotional intelligence, imagination and creativity" (Pink, 2005).  These findings reiterate the point that the demands of the workplace have shifted to value more humanizing skills over factual information. 

If we think about the idea of googleable vs. non-googleable questions, the answers that are on Jeopardy! are primarily googleable, and do not require higher levels of thinking.  Unfortunately, these are the types of questions that are still being asked of students in school.  Students are still expected to memorize trivial facts in order to demonstrate their learning and understanding on standardized tests.  However, what students need to be doing is trying to answer non-googleable questions that open-ended answers that require them to collaborate and debate and use other higher order thinking skills.  In order to facilitate this type of learning, we as teachers need to empower our students to be curious, to inquire, to research, and to reflect on the things that they find meaningful and relevant.  And we need to be fostering student agency, and teaching students how to become creative, critical thinkers who know how to access and use the world’s information so that they can accomplish any task, and succeed in any environment.

The Jeopardy! Paradox 

To restate my earlier point, the perception of what it means to be smart is outdated, and has become less relevant due to the new demands of the workplace.  It has become less important to know an abundant amount of trivial information, and it has become more important to know how to quickly access and apply this type of information with right-brain skills. The paradox here is the fact that we perceive the contestants on Jeopardy! to be some of the smartest people on the planet because they excel in acquiring and retrieving information.  When in reality, they are just exercising a skill that is underutilized, and undervalued in today's world.  The problem is that our education system still places value on the demonstration of knowledge acquisition in order to assess student achievement.  Put simply, our schools still perceive "smart" as being able to master the skills required of the Information Age, when they should embrace "smart" to include the mastery of right-brain skills of the Conceptual Age.

To illustrate this paradox, former teacher, parent, and author, Ulcca Hansen shares her frustration with her children's education experience in her local public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In her article in The Washington Post, Hanson writes, "My sons learned the concept of being smart when they were young. To them, 'smart' meant to be good at the things most schools tell us are important: reading and writing well, understanding math, finishing tests quickly." Hansen goes on to write, "Like many parents, I struggle with a painful tension: I see the unique brilliance of my children, but I also know that brilliance can’t shine in an education system where 'smart' is measured in a very different way." 

In her article, Hansen also highlights the challenges that many schools face that were exposed by the pandemic.  Hansen points out that the educational disruption of the coronavirus pandemic was a reminder that “smart” has come to represent a flattened, largely dehumanized idea of human capability, and that our children are so much more (Hansen, 2022).  In order for schools to overcome these challenges, Hansen suggests that schools should build capacity in the skills that students need today in order to become successful in life.  I agree with Hansen when she writes, "In a world where technology enables us to access, capture, engage with and distribute knowledge in so many ways, it feels most important to help kids learn what they need to succeed and help them build those skills." And this is just the perspective from one person who represents the concerns of the vast majority of parents and educators—the concerns that should ultimately lead to a paradigm shift in education where we reevaluate what it means to be smart today, and what it takes to be successful tomorrow. 

I have come to realize that intelligence is not dependent on an abundance of knowledge, rather, it is dependent on one's ability to process and apply information in order to create knowledge. Some of the smartest people in the world are the ones who have been able to master this skill—who are asking profound questions, tackling wicked problems, coming up with novel solutions, and paving the way for generations to come.  Let's teach our students that anyone can be smart and provide them with the knowledge and skills needed to be able to adapt to any situation and overcome any obstacle in life. Let's teach our students not to just consume content, but to create content in order to become knowledge-able.

 

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Knowledgeable vs. Knowledge-able
How to Become a Knowledge Constructor in the Age of Fake News
How Do You Learn in the Digital Age?


References
  1. “For Students: Information Literacy.” For Students: Information Literacy | Information Literacy | Array, https://skylinecollege.edu/library/informationliteracy/#:~:text=What%20is%20Information%20Literacy%3F,or%20the%20acquisition%20of%20knowledge. 
  2. Hansen, Ulcca Joshi. “Perspective | How Parents Can Help Kids Redefine What It Means to Be Smart.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Feb. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2022/02/11/parents-children-redefine-smart/. 
  3. Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. 

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