Tackling Public Ignorance with Incidental Learning

Knowledge matters.  People who know more tend to think better, understand more, and remember more (for research on this, see my previous post “On the Importance of Knowledge”).  Further, people with more knowledge and education tend to enjoy better jobs, incomes, health and longevity.

This leads to an important paradox of our age:

There is a wealth of valuable information – about health, safety, and the environment, about how cars, governments, and economies work, about history, science, and philosophy – yet surveys show that many people know more about the most popular TV shows than they do about, say, nutrition, or how their government works, things that really affect their lives.

In short, our age is marked by information abundance, and public ignorance.

Learning CookieYes, many will seek out the ever increasing amount of free information and courses online when they want or need it.  Yet surveys of public knowledge reveal that people generally know little more than some basics about topics that affect their lives (see, for example, the Pew Research Center’s surveys of the U.S. public’s knowledge of government and current issues, available here).  Furthermore, those poorest in knowledge are often the least likely to seek information that matters to their lives, and most likely to consume the endless torrent of new and exciting entertainment that amuses, but does not typically inform.

Indeed, given the choice between watching a fast-moving, eye-catching TV crime drama, and reading, say, a book about nutrition or government, most of us choose the former every day.  After a long day’s work, it’s a lot more entertaining!

That’s why we cannot rely strictly on deliberate learning, whether in schools or online.

Most educational efforts assume learning is deliberate.  You want to learn something?  Then go to school, take an online course, read a book, watch a video, etc.

Yet a lot of learning is not deliberate, but incidental, and unintended.  Let me give you an example: I know more than I want to know about Coca-Cola.  I know its trademark colors and design, some of its history (if you are old enough, you might remember the furor surrounding “New Coke” in the 1980s), and a lot of its advertising (the older jingle “I’d like to buy the world a Coke…,” and the more recent Coke-drinking, holiday polar bear).

No one among my family or friends works for Coca-Cola.  I don’t own stock in Coca-Cola.  I don’t even drink the stuff (some call it “liquid candy” given the sweetened versions’ sugar load).

I know things about Coca-Cola not because I deliberately sought to learn about it in class or on the internet, but because I happened to be watching TV, reading a magazine, glancing at a billboard or online ad, or else.

A lot of what we know we learn not deliberately in school, but incidentally in everyday life, as we casually watch media around us, and talk with family, friends, acquaintances, even strangers.

Advertisers know this, and accordingly do their best to capture our attention not in class, but in everyday life outside of class.  If businesses do this all the time to sell their products and services, why don’t governments, public schools, universities, public interest groups, and others that are trying to inform and empower the public?

What if county or state governments provided public schools with posters (on world geography, human anatomy, history, etc.) to give children and their parents, encouraging them to place the posters at home where they will see them, in the bathroom, bedroom, or else?  Such an initiative could reinforce deliberate learning in schools, connecting class discussion and tests with incidental education at home.

What if city governments partnered with local businesses and non-profits to increase public awareness of free and low-cost community services, volunteer opportunities, and more on tabletop tents in area restaurants, cafes, and bars?

The possibilities for reducing public ignorance through incidental learning are as promising as our collective will allows, and as extensive as the surfaces at which people gaze, from tabletop tents and cereal boxes, to posters and wallpaper.

Paul Lachelier, Ph.D.
Founder, Learning Life