The Joys of Shallow Thinking…

I subscribe to several hundred blogs with Bloglines. Most days, this results in several hundred feeds to read. I also subscribe to a series of listservs – some generating a large amount of daily posts, others only periodic posts. To further convolute my information sources, I also subscribe to many newsletters. I imagine my information consumption habits are not that unique. In the end, I encounter hundreds (if not thousands) of different sources of information each day.

I’m fascinated by how we have changed our relationship with information (and still kept the sense of expectation we apply to how we used to handle information). When I first started with this whole “online thing”, getting 5 emails a day was considered busy. Now, it’s several hundred. In order to function with the increased volume, I (like everyone else) have had to reduce the amount of time I spend with each email, so that I’m able to process all of the information. This reality is exacerbated by webfeeds and aggregators.

What happens when we change how we interact with information? We “ramp up” our processing habits. Instead of reading, we skim. Instead of exploring and responding to each item, we try and link it to existing understanding. We move (in regards to most information we encounter) from specific to general thinking…from deep to shallow thinking. Shallow thinking, in this sense, isn’t as negative as its connotations. Shallow thinking (perhaps I need a better phrase) involves exploring many different sources of information without focusing too heavily on one source. Aggregating at this level helps us to stay informed across broad disciplines. So much of education intends to provide “deep learning”. Often, however, “shallow learning is desired” (i.e. we want to know of a concept, but we don’t have time or interest to explore it deeply). All we need at this stage is simply the understanding (awareness?) that it exists. Often, learning is simply about opening a door…

As an example, today while skimming my Bloglines feeds, I formed a general awareness of lawsuits against Apple, developments with Google Base, blood tests for determining anxiety, etc. I’ve grown in my skills at rapid reading and aggregating information. I’ve also learned to quickly recognize information that is important for deeper exploration. The bulk of this work still happens in my head, but I’m encountering more software tools that assist the process. I don’t think it’s too ambitious to say that we are still very much at the beginning of a new era of learning – one defined by confusion in the abundance of information…and the accelerated need fro determining which information is valuable, and how the pieces fit together.

12 Responses to “The Joys of Shallow Thinking…”

  1. Laura says:

    I’d call that “big picture thinking.” You’re seeing what’s happening more generally in the world, and I think that’s a good thing. I do much the same thing and I find that I’m able to call up that information when needed–when talking to a faculty member, for example. I can say, yeah, I just read something that might help you and send them a link.

  2. Jasmine says:

    Horizontal Thinking?
    It sure does emphasize our need to teach these kinds of metacognitive strategies to kids too.

  3. Scanning and gisting – we scan through information and catch the gist. Then, if necessary and/or interested, we can slow down and read a particular piece, or in a particular area, more deeply. Deep and/or close reading and scanning and gisting are separate, though connected skills that can be learned and practiced. The Web and the Information Age requires a broader set of reading skills, in my opinion.

  4. Matthias says:

    I do think that deep learning of a topic is necessary, but not in its own right but as a sample or representative for the similar topics that, later on, can be touched more shallowly.

  5. Eugene O'Loughlin says:

    Shallow thinking (yes – I do think
    a different name is needed!) has been with me for several years in my reading habits, and has crept into my online habits just as GS describes. When I read newspapers and magazines I find that it is the shorter articles that I read most – and I very often don’t finish the longer ones. Newspapers and magazines have responded to this trend by publishing lots of short pieces of information. Even National Geographic has lots more short items than it did years ago.
    I too have got into the habit of skimming through RSS feeds, often only looking at the titles to find something interesting. However, the I question the value of getting hundreds of feeds/updates every day – many feeds that I subscribe to contain information that is not of immediate use or interest. For these connections to learning to be of value, I would like to see better ways of managing the feeds so that I can get just the information/learning that is useful to me.
    I recommend learning feeds to my students, but often find that they do not read them or at best, just look at a few.

  6. Brian says:

    Skimming has the benefit of increasing our awareness of various possibilities. As you said, it also has the benefit of improving our ability to attend to information and identify information for deeper exploration. This is how I treat Bloglines – I scan entries with the idea of finding something to explore in more depth. I use Furl in the same way. Some of my Furl entries relate to specific things I have written, while others I simply bookmarked as something I might return to later. I also regularly delete Bloglines feeds and Furl entries if I feel there is no reason to keep them. As a side note – I am finding the recommendations in Bloglines and Furl to be somewhat removed from what I would want, but there have been some interesting items come up.
    I do much the same thing from time to time in a library. Once in a while I will set my own pursuits aside and let serendipity be my guide. I think this has helped open up possibilities for thinking. By intentionally going to areas and topics I am unfamiliar with I encourage a broader awareness. Sometimes I will read the Table of Contents and Index and put the book back, other times it winds up coming home with me for a more detailed read.
    Edward de Bono coined the term “lateral thinking” and perhaps there is a connection between it and the benefits of shallow thinking (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateral_thinking).
    I also have other information – largely on my bookshelf – that I find myself returning to over the years. The idea of reading a book twice, or in my case several time at different points in my life, now seems quite foreign to other people. There is a perception that once we have read something once we are somehow “finished” with it. However, if I don’t feel I will ever return to a book I donate it to the local library. I have found it quite interesting to return to the same writing usually to find that the experiences I now bring to it change my understanding of it. In a sense, I have gone deeper into the book but have also increased its breadth of influence. I quite literally connect with it in a different way.
    The writing process seems no different for me. I will re-read entries that I have written and it is very unusual for me to leave them as is. Some entries will be revised – and other entries are deleted. Sometimes re-reading entries will inspire me to write something related or to explore an idea within it in more detail. It’s more of an organic process.

  7. I think I prefer “networked thinking” to “shallow”, but the concept is the same.
    I spend most of my correspondence-management time making connections, looking for patterns, trends, memes, blips, spikes, etc… Things that would have been extremely difficult or impossible for an individual to do prior to RSS and aggregators.
    Things that would have required a staff – like a newspaper or magazine. That’s essentially the service they provided before networked thinking was feasible on an individual scale.

  8. I’ve been thinking of this process as ’sifting’ because I’m often organising information for later retrieval without really assimilating it. I manage tons of information, as well, and it’s very much a process of sifting through the chaff to find the wheat. In the connected sense, the important activity for me is to develop a scheme that allows me to retrieve those bits when relevant. That’s why tagging works well, but I’ve recently started using Onfolio to manage my feeds and capture relevant bits as I go. If I don’t spend that bit of time organising, I can never find the thing I need when I need it and spend time constructing Google searches that seldom yield the result I’m looking for. But as I mentioned in an earlier comment, this practice allows me to create a structure outside my own brain that extends the efficacy of my brain. I can’t possibly hold all that stuff myself… have to delegate things that are currently irrelevant but could be relevant later to another solution… where are those intelligent agents we were promised years ago? ;-)

  9. Hi all – I agree with the general consensus that “shallow thinking” is the wrong term. Networked thinking (as D’Arcy suggests) or “sifting” (as Lisa suggests) more accurately reflects what it is that we are doing when we aggregate. We still explore information – but most generally, we are trying to keep it at a manageable level. We delve deeper as the need warrants.
    Like others have noted as well, the notions of networked thinking aren’t new – we use different terms to describe it – scanning, horizontal thinking, skimming, etc. The biggest difference isn’t the process anymore. It’s the importance of the process. I remember (as little as 10 years ago) that I could largely stay informed in a particular field by reading one or two major publications (periodicals). Now, the information is so abundant, I have to adjust my style and move to a more constant use of aggregating. What I used to do in weeks/months, I often do in days. The skill is simply more important than it once was.

  10. George – it’s not just that sifting/networking/connecting is more important now than it used to be (it is), but it’s also that the locus of sifting/networking/connecting is now within the individual – not on the editorial board of a publication or periodical. We’re exposed directly to primary sources, and have to develop our own crap filters and frameworks for understanding the flow of information.
    There is still a strong demand for the role of an information pre-filtering system – a content expert such as Stephen Downes is invaluable to help a broader understanding of the streams of content coming at us…

  11. Jen R says:

    How about ‘wide thinking’? Contrasts well with ‘deep’ but doesn’t have the negative connotations of ’shallow’.

  12. Jay Cross says:

    It’s linking, isn’t it?
    A while back, I discovered that much of what I thought of as reading the New York Times was actually seeking confirmation and taking comfort from what I already knew!
    This reminds me of the Woody Allen line that he took a speed-reading course and then read War & Peace in a couple of hours. “It’s about Russia.”