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Reading, Thinking, and Learning, With and Without Computers

bennett's picture

 Bennett Smith

Brain, Education and Inquiry – Web Paper 2

Reading, Thinking, and Learning, With and Without Computers

We humans have almost always had tools. Those tools have not simply been inert objects that we fashion and use to our advantage, because every time we use a tool of any kind we enter into a relationship with it, work with it in its way. Because of the way that a hammer operates, we are inclined to use it in a particular way, and to respond to particular situations: “For this we’ll need a hammer.” We see hammers , or at least opportunities for hammering,  all over our world, because we have a concept of hammering that attaches itself in particular ways to particular things.  No one would claim that this was a bad thing, but equally, it seems difficult to deny; it’s just something about us, the way that our brain works, that we have tools to manipulate and understand our world, and that the way to use those tools becomes stereotyped and capable of repetition almost anywhere in the world.

Today we have the Internet, maybe nominally a “tool” but also so much more than that; not something defined by its use value but capable of sustaining and allotting values itself, of creating, sustaining and linking whole worlds. We engage with it perceptually, just as we do with older forms of recording, preserving and disseminating experiences, but the experience of that perception is not necessarily the same. Things move very quickly, not least because there is so much content on offer. In this paper I use two recent articles from major American media outlets to think through some of the ways that technology has changed and is changing our way of engaging with the world and with knowledge. I will then imagine some possibilities these changes present for the way that we educate children in our society – whether our paradigmatic conceptions of things like reading, teaching and learning will have to change with technology or if there is a third way to envisage education in the early 21st century.

Reading was once a very different thing for me. I used to read slowly and purposefully; now I feel impatient and distracted, acutely aware of the real labor involved in reading and sustaining attention on the page. So it was honestly relieving to see those feelings reflected pointedly in a 2008 article from Atlantic Monthly, called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The author, Nicholas Carr, summarizes a relatively recent study in which scholars “found that people using [a variety of research sites] exhibited ‘a form of skimming activity,’ hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would ‘bounce’ out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.” (1) This practice of skimming and skimming widely was not always possible, or even desirable – going from one article to the next would involve digging through card catalogs or finding aids; there arguably was a stronger cultural expectation that you hadn’t really done the work of understanding an article or other text until you had really spent time with it and worked to understand it. We become accustomed to having our attention redirected pretty frequently to a wide array of different stimuli; from banner ads and moving graphics and sound to the vast array of information, images, etc. available for free, instantly. Reading is not rich with sensory stimuli – it mostly takes place in our heads, and thus has to vie for space with all the other inputs and outputs.

This might lead us to imagine that our experience of reading is changing because our texts are changing; we are not just what we read, but how we read. Carr talks to a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, Maryanne Wolf, who makes that exact claim: “Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts ‘efficiency’ and ‘immediacy’ above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.” (1) I find this deeply compelling; I think that it accords absolutely with my experience of reading online, and the difference that I perceive between “reading the old way” – the slow way – and reading today. It seems completely possible that the balance of mental faculties reserved in the brain is slowly being adjusted to accommodate the tremendous amount of information that the Internet makes possible (or necessary) to process.

And indeed, recent experiments in neuropsychology have demonstrated that something really does seem to be happening to the way that our brains process information. Eyal Ophir is a researcher at Stanford University whose work has looked into the ways that “multitaskers” (heavy Internet users) and “non-multitaskers” process information differently. A New York Times article provides a contextual frame for his research this way (which I think hews nicely to the “frog brain”–neo-cortex relationship that we discussed in class): “A portion of the brain acts as a control tower, helping a person focus and set priorities. More primitive parts of the brain, like those that process sight and sound, demand that it pay attention to new information, bombarding the control tower when they are stimulated” (2). Researchers think that we evolved this bipartite system to allow us to organize our priorities: the primitive parts keep us alert to danger, while the “control tower” does the higher level cognitive work. The problem is that our current information economy overwhelms our “control towers”: “‘Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone’s brain thinking,’ said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. ‘But we’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it” (2).

This obviously need not be the case for everyone, and, just like the introduction of any new tool, neither necessarily signals the “end of the world as we know it” nor necessarily provides cause for alarm. The article notably features this word of caution: “‘The bottom line is, the brain is wired to adapt,’ said Steven Yantis, a professor of brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s no question that rewiring goes on all the time,’ he added.” By the same token, rewiring could happen on a very large scale, as it ostensibly did with the invention of the printing press, and we could be witnessing the beginning of a monumental historical change. There is not some external norm to compare our brains to; this need not be a bad thing. But the science, and the anecdotal evidence, suggest that something really is going on.

An obvious question, then, is: how do we educate children growing up in this informational environment? What is the best way to engage them, and to teach them things that will stick, in ways that will get through to them? Just as there is no clear “problem” with the increasing presence of technology in our lives and its effects on the way that we think, there is no clear “solution” to that problem. We already have two concepts that I think could be of real importance for this discussion: the cognitive unconscious, and the idea of mental downtime. Looking at these two concepts, we might find openings for new ways to structure education that is responsive to changes in technology, but preserves the frame and content of things that we think are vital to teach children.

We often teach, as we discussed in class, to the “storyteller.” We embed knowledge in a narrative frame, even grafting one onto discontinuous bits of information, so that we can “make sense of it”; our brains do this automatically as we saw in various “tricks” of visual perception.  At work with and behind this “storyteller” is our cognitive unconscious, which is home to many specialized mental abilities doing a good deal of the actual computing required for thought (and where, for instance, “multi-tasking” happens). In class we’ve discussed how teaching to the cognitive unconscious might actually be a better way to communicate information than a more  traditional narrative form, because it will be better accessible and better retained. Amidst a barrage of discontinuous bits of information, that might be a better idea than ever: the cognitive unconscious seems to trade in discontinuous bits of information, is used to accommodating a variety of different inputs and outputs. So organizing hands-on activities, allowing limited and well-directed use of technology in the classroom, and consistently providing openings for both new and old forms of expression might provide enough diversity of learning context to appeal to a boy or girl already oversaturated with perceptual stimuli. The storyteller might start to take more of a backseat, we might culturally come to expect or demand “less sense,” less storytelling, while at the same time preserving the place of a particular kind of expression.

Mental downtime is related to an emphasis on the cognitive unconscious, but it also requires a real departure from our cultural stress on productivity. Most simply, it means allowing yourself the time to not work on anything, not think actively about anything, and allow your brain to make sense of all of the information it has been processing. I remember reading a paper in high school by the mathematician Poincaré in which he said that some of his most crucial mathematical insights had come in flashes of inspiration, when he was thinking about nothing at all. The brain needs to time to test out different hypotheses and work through problems. At its most basic level of implementation, that means letting kids have fun, letting them have nap time until they truly don’t need it, supporting their physical health at least as much as their mental engagement.

It’s too soon to say with any certainty that new technology is having a substantial effect on the ways that our brains process information. But as with any other issue in education or policy, we may not know until it is too late to do anything about it. I think that it’s worth taking a serious, detailed look at this phenomenon, with an eye to how kids seem to be adjusting to reading books alongside computer screens and cellphones. And I plan to spend a lot more time away from my computer; hopefully I might get back some focus.

(1) Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?’. The Atlantic, July/August 2008.

(2) Richtel, Matt. “Your Brain on Computers.” The New York Times Online Edition, June 6 2010.



Paul Grobstein's picture

computer technology and story in education

Its interesting to think about this in connection with the discussion of the Freire idea that texts need to be treated dialogically (rather than analyzed in depth) and, still deeper, in connection with the claim that all written text is an ossification of more dynamic story sharing (Thomas King, The Truth About Stories).  Perhaps one get return to "some focus" by spending more time away from the computer but at the cost of reinstating a more ongoing dialogical relation with stories in general?