Defining Literacy Down

The only time this humble blog ever touched off a hint of controversy came when I made a few skeptical remarks about on-line education (The Empirical Strikes Back and We Should Talk). I was reminded of this minor contretemps by this morning’s New York Times, which quotes Dr. Sheryl R. Abishire, chief technology officer for the the school system in Lake Charles, Louisiana:

"Kids are wired differently these days,” Abishire said. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite. They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote. Teachers need digital resources to find those documents, those blogs, those wikis that get them beyond the plain vanilla curriculum in the textbooks.”

Now I agree with Dr. Abishire on at least one of the points she makes. We do need to get beyond bad textbooks, those dumbed-down amalgams with their pre-annotated margins, chapter summaries and bright info-graphics. But other than that, I disagree with her on just about everything else. Why should we think that the human brain, which is the product of several hundred thousand years of evolutionary development, has been significantly “rewired” by one generation of staring at a computer screen?

There’s a camp of thinkers out there (many selling educational software) who believe that the current generation’s hours and hours of interacting via new media platforms means it thinks differently. Along with this comes the idea that we need to alter the way we teach to accommodate the new digital-age student. But kids aren’t wired differently today. The human brain doesn't change that fast. To be sure, they are more digitally nimble, but they’re also increasingly less literate.

A disconcerting number of my students cannot interpret the meaning of a complex passage containing multiple ideas. They find it difficult to pick out a paragraph’s main idea or to understand key assumptions underlying an argument. Of course they don’t engage with textbooks that are “finite and linear.” They can’t read very well and don't write in complete sentences. The notion that they have been re-wired is simply a misguided way of explaining their intellectual impoverishment and the way we've defined literacy down. I know some will disagree, but writing a critical essay with an organized, well wrought argument simply isn't the equivalent of creating a PowerPoint presentation, web page or video.

And let's be honest about another of Dr. Abishire's contentions: there is no such thing as multi-tasking. It’s an illusion, a myth, a downright lie. Anyone who has ever studied cognitive science knows that people cannot think about two things at once. What they can do is task shift—that is rapidly move the attention back and forth between tasks. Unfortunately, productivity and efficiency at both tasks drops precipitously whenever we do this. If I ask students to text a friend while I outline four interrelated points and then quiz them, they flame out every time. Or try this: have someone tell you the history of his day while you count backwards from 111 by threes. Then take a comprehension test.

Dr. Abishire also talks above about the need for teachers to find good material, and there is no denying that the digital revolution has made it easier to access lots and lots of good information. I love that I can find answers to my questions quickly and almost anywhere these days. We’ve certainly solved the access to information problem. In fact, we keep solving it over and over and believe that doing so somehow translates into an educational payoff. But what difference does it make if I can get a copy of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government in a nanosecond if I can’t understand what he’s written without having someone dumb it down for me?

The entire idea of a liberal arts education is to equip people with the intellectual skills to think for themselves, not to outsource the intellectual work to textbooks (on-line or otherwise). In the end, people learn to think critically by working hard at it. Greater access to information does nothing to change this fact. Indeed, a labor saving devices for the hard work of thinking rather misses the point. John Dewey put it this way a century ago:

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful.
The Digital Age is a wonderful thing, but when will we realize that there are no technological panaceas in education?

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