Headshot of Dr. Troy A. Swanson

Dyslexia, Sorting, Organizing, and the Availability Heuristic by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson


Writer Jay Stringer wrote a piece on Panels.net about how comic books helped him deal with his dyslexia and increased his reading skills (see Dyslexia and Comics by Jay Stringer 10|24|14). He notes,

“We all combine information in different ways, and at different speeds. Some can add story and plot together in a mathematical equation that leads to narrative. Dyslexics like myself can’t learn anything without a narrative to hold on to. Why am I being given this information? What does it do? What is it relevant to? What similar thing should I store it next to in my head?” (italics his)

One idea (among several) that stuck with me was the idea of sorting information. Stringer explains that dyslexia is often not just about the mechanics of reading, letters, words, and grammar. It is also about the ability to process information and thereby connect letters, words, and grammar to new and existing ideas. He sees this as a mental sorting process.

I am not dyslexic but reading Stringer’s piece gave me a unique perspective on understanding people who are (or at least Stringer’s experience). He provides an interesting perspective on information processing and how the mind handles new ideas and existing idea by connecting them to the tools of literacy.

Naturally, this got me thinking about information literacy and the research process. There are many times when we discuss information literacy that we discuss “synthesizing” information. Synthesis becomes this magical process where we take our own ideas and beliefs and mix them up with the ideas and beliefs of others which we gather through a search process. We talk about synthesis but we do not often talk about how it works and what it is.

Sorting and Organizing
Searching, evaluating results, reviewing sources, and taking notes from sources are essentially sorting processes. Our sorting takes the form of evaluations that help to separate what is (potentially) useful and what is not useful. We sort out the things that work best for us and save them for further review. When we read and take notes on sources themselves, we move to the level of ideas. We sort ideas that connect with arguments, understandings, and worldviews. It is not enough to simply sort. We must organize. Sometimes this happens through taking notes. Sometimes this happens through making outlines. Sometimes we just write and then we edit, re-edit, and the organization process happens as a draft forms itself.

Availability Heuristics
Sorting and organizing processes are deeply wrapped up in our beliefs about how the world works. Our beliefs tell us what is important and what to ignore. Most people are somewhat knowledgeable in a few subjects. But, most of the time, we are making due with poor knowledge. We are really bad at judging what evidence is missing. We use what we know but it is difficult to see all evidence and evaluate it appropriately. Many times, we use heuristics to make decisions. A heuristic is a simplified set of procedures developed to handle a problem. It is generally accurate but not perfectly accurate. When our mind takes action on information, it draws on the information that is available to it. Availability is greatly impacted by experience.

Here’s an example used by Daniel Kahneman,

Mr. Brown never picks up hitchhikers but yesterday he made an exception and picked up a hitchhiker. He was robbed by this hitchhiker.

Mr. Smith always picks up hitchhikers. He picks them up on a regular basis every chance he gets. Yesterday he picked up a hitchhiker and he was robbed.

How would Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith seems things differently based on their experience? Experience and existing knowledge plays games with the availability heuristic. Individuals who are experts (like Mr. Smith in the case of hitchhikers) with deep knowledge on a topic posses a broad foundation of knowledge to judge individual experiences and individual sources. In other words, they are better able to sort knowledge and experience into meaningful categories. swansonphotoThe challenge arises when individuals have superficial or a minimal knowledge about a topic. In these cases, we often act on our feeling and beliefs. We are more susceptible to the influences of availability and our narrow experience.

It was Springer’s discussion on dyslexia and the need to sort and organize information that took me down this information literacy rabbit hole. We can use many metaphors to understand (frame?) the research process. I found the sorting and organizing metaphor worth considering.

(For more information on the availability heuristic take a look at Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.)

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Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the co-editor of the upcoming book from ACRL, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.