reading

# the still point of the turning world (part 1)

” Whenever the net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. In not only dissolves the mediums physical form; it injects the mediums content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content”

The Shallows, p90

“Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”

The Shallows, p91

In 2007 I recall watching the following video by anthropologist Mark Wesch.

It was a clear call to re-think the impact that the ‘internet’ or ‘world wide web’ has on society. In a nutshell:

  • With simple tools for contribution we are the web i.e we make, organize, view, prioritize the ‘web’
  • It correctly identified Web 2.0 as the social web
  • It realized the impact of this medium on concepts such as copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, governance, privacy, commerce, family, love and ourselves

In a sense Mark Wesch stepped outside the phenomenon of the web and posed very important questions for all thinking people to consider. Since 2007 this pattern has continued with greater clarity and I will zone in on one area of impact in this weeks blog.

Reading.

Do we/our students remember what this is?

You sit down in a comfortable chair. Comfortable, because you may sustain this activity for an hour or even two. You usually remove distraction i.e T.V off, away from the phone, in relaxed state. You pick up a bound set of pages that progress in a linear fashion – jumping from page to page offers no advantage, in fact it’s sometimes necessary to read slowly and absorb, to stop and ponder or even to just marvel of the ideas or narrative unfolding before you. 

T.S Elliot more eloquently termed this process as the “..still point of the turning world”.

Hold on to this thought. If the internet was a brain how would it function? Some suggestions:

  • multitasking = default
  • cover vast amounts of information at shallow depths
  • lack a reference point of central authority
  • non-linear and ‘hyper’-linked
  • continually evolving, being reformed and ‘mashed’ up
  • truth is secondary to speed (yet interestingly, defaults to truth overtime)
  • reflection is an impediment to efficiency

And herein lies our challenge. Neuroplasticity. Our brains are malleable. Research has shown that “Cells that fire together, wire together.”In some senses the ‘brain’ of the internet is the brain of our students as they spend more hours online than in our classes. Where do we see this at school?

  1. Difficulty for students to maintain sustained attention on a linear task for a prolonged period of time e.g deep reading.
  2. Tendency to want to multi-task as the default state for learning/studying/relating
  3. Overemphasis on efficiency and speed over accuracy and reflection.
  4. Preference for shallow thinking vs deep synthesis of information.

Now before I progress I should provide a little balance.

Carr (2011) highlights the executive neural activity that is dominant when people read content on the internet. They are rapidly making higher order decisions about the validity of information, skimming and processing (albeit lightly) at incredible speeds and generally engaging many aspects of what we commonly call ‘higher order’ thinking.

Gladwell (2010) in his book ‘Blink’ highlights the advantage of rapid decision-making based on limited and shallow information:

“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision-making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking

So it appears we have a clash of cultures. Traditional learning culture & re-wired brains of our students.

” Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind.It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind.Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas and emotions. That was – and is – the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading.  It was the ‘technology’ of the book that made this ‘strange anomaly’ in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain”.

The Shallows, p65

It could be said that today our students are developing something quite different = The digitally literate brain.

The question is how are we going to respond, especially with the next generation coming through..

Next week – How to respond to the digitally literate brain in class.

Recommended reading:

Nicholas Carr – The Shallows 

Malcolm Gladwell – Blink

Nicholas Carr – Is Google making us stupid? -

Sample:

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

(Nicholas Carr from ‘Is Google making us stupid”).

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