Who says our way is the right way?

As I sit on the board of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, I have been thinking about the different ways people learn. RFB&D gives students the tools to learn by listening. We call that a disability. I think it may soon be seen as an advantage.

A group of Danish academics say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.

That’s what makes me think that RFB&D’s clients may end up with a leg up. They understand better than the textually oriented among us how to learn through hearing. Rather than being seen as the people who need extra help, perhaps they will be in the position to give the rest of us help.

And I thought that as I read Matt Richtel’s piece in the New York Times today: Growing up digital, wired for distraction. It starts off lamenting that a student got only 43 pages through Cat’s Cradle. But as @HowardOwens responded on Twitter: “Gee, a 17-year-old only gets 43 pages into his summer reading assignment. Like, that’s never happened before.”

Richtel and the experts he calls blame technology, of course, for shortening our attention spans, just as Nick Carr and Andrew Keen do, lamenting the change. But the assumption they all make is that the way we used to do it is the right way. What if, as I said in Short Attention Span Theater (aka Twitter), we’re evolving:

“Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

Richtel, to his credit, focuses at the end of his piece on a distracted student who can, indeed, focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making. Maybe that’s because he’s creating. Maybe it’s because he’s working with tools that give him feedback. Maybe it’s because he is communicating with an audience.

I spend time on this topic in my next book, Public Parts (when I can concentrate on writing it — that is, when I’m not blogging and tweeting as I am right now): Technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.

Mind you, one of the joys of writing this book is that I’ve had cause to start reading books again. I’ll confess I’d fallen off the shelf.

Now I’m enjoying reading books as part of the process of creating, sharing, communicating. I’m learning not just by reading and absorbing but by rethinking and remixing. And I’m thinking the result of my next project after this one may not be a book but something else — a talk, for example; a book may be a byproduct rather than the goal.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see The Times start.

: @SivaVaid(hyanathan) just said on Twitter: “There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired’ Get a grip.” Right. What can be rewired are media and education and that’s what we’re seeing happen — or what we should be seeing happen.

  • I wonder how A Tale of Two Cities would have started if Dickens hadn’t been paid by the word. Reading the NYT article reminded me that, all too often, we judge the worth of a work (written or otherwise) by how long it takes to consume. My goal in reading is to gain as much knowledge and enjoyment as possible; new media allows me to do that more efficiently than ever.

  • That student can focus because he’s doing something he loves, something he’s good at and finds value in. And that is the real challenge to schools when it comes to technology. Kids can do the things they love on their own. Sure, it’d be great if every child could find a passion like that student. But right now, we do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. We need to give students more opportunities to do what they love inside the four walls, so they can experience that focus and that love of learning with us rather than without us. Schools roles then can become developing those learning interactions, not pounding dates and formulas into their brains. My kids keep learning when they come home from school, just not the stuff the school wants them to learn. More and more, they’re caring less and less about what they do in the classroom.

  • The questions you pose are so much more significant than the questions public schools are addressing in relation to student achievement. You have just opened a door that gives a glimmer of understanding about what’s going on in our culture.

    • Thanks. I love that this comes from a writing teacher.

  • GCB

    There aren’t any copper wires in the brain, but there sure are plenty of wires and even chips and microprocessors. More of them, in fact, in a single human brain than there are computers on earth:


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  • The original comment I wanted to make on this post (but got distracted by ranting against curmudgeons on Twitter) was that I have consumed a pretty steady rate of a couple hundred books a year since I learned how to read. I’m 24, so I guess I’m what some people call a “digital native” (hate that too!). However, in the past 5 years my book consumption has largely moved from reading physical books, to reading them online, and then to audiobooks.

  • When I read that article this morning, I was quite amused by the fact that, as they assert that technology is rewiring the brains of our youth and diminishing their capacity to focus, the student used as a representative of this phenomenon has absolutely no trouble working 8+8 hours for 3 good minutes of the film he’s creating.

    Why is everyone so afraid of the change that’s taking place before our eyes? It’s incredible that this student, and many more like him, have the opportunity to learn, explore and create in ways that we could never of dreamt of 25 or 30 years ago.

    I also can’t help but wonder why the teachers who were quoted in the article are so blind to the possibilities of what this technology can offer them and their classroom. We want to encourage autonomy, creativity, collaboration, inquiry, divergent thinking, cultural perspective, life-long learning … while these things may not require technology, it most certainly offers us the chance to do more and reach further and, most importantly, it resonates with the students. Isn’t that the point?

  • Russ Leonard-Whitman

    The value of books (physical or virtual) over tweets is that “books” allow a depth and detail that a similar amount of words posted on Twitter is unlikely to match. Could you have presented the material in your most recent book on Twitter? Would it have had a similar response from readers? If all we are losing is the physical form of the “book” then maybe this discussion is moot, but if we are losing the ability to communicate the depth, detail, and understanding that “books” have provided, then we may have something important to talk about.

    • False equivalency; red herring. Show me where I or anyone else says that Twitter replaces books. Links, please.

      I do, however, find Twitter invaluable in trying out ideas and getting help to write a book. That’s the point. It presents new opportunities.

  • I agree that we will get a lot more oral and aural content, but I think the biggest shift will not be in this direction, but in a visual and video direction.

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  • The real problem with the student’s situation in the NY Times article is that his teachers are not engaging him. Let him use KhanAcademy.org, where he can learn algebra by watching YouTube videos. Let him use his video skills to demonstrate his knowledge of algebra, instead of writing a standardized test. Where’s the differentiated learning? He seems like an intelligent kid, and surely if he applied himself to his algebra homework with even half of the effort he puts into his videos, he would pass.

    Like anything in life, we all need some moderation. We also need discipline and the development of work habits at some point in our lives. Putting down the book you’re reading to send text messages, only to realize 20 minutes later you totally forgot to read the book, is not a trait that will endear you to many employers. That being said, being able to juggle a multitude or projects and ideas at any given time, is a increasingly valuable trait. Moderation is key.

    “If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d focus more on school and be doing better academically,” he says. But thanks to the Internet, he says, he has discovered and pursued his passion: filmmaking. Without the Internet, “I also wouldn’t know what I want to do with my life.”

    Which one seems more important? Perhaps what’s broken is the way our educators present content and how we judge students in academic settings.

  • Chris B

    I recently read Carr’s The Shallows, and found his arguments fairly persuasive… has anyone here come across a substantive response? Most of the replies seem somewhat ad hominem or tangential, not really addressing his arguments head on. But it’s possible I just haven’t found a more thorough rebuttal yet.

  • Just as Tracey above notes the article stresses how technology is “diminishing their capacity to focus, [yet] the student used as a representative of this phenomenon has absolutely no trouble working 8+8 hours for 3 good minutes of the film he’s creating.”

    Much of the problem seems to me the distinction between schooling and learning. These children seem pretty self-motivated–and not so motivated by what teachers dish out. They’re more assertive than I was (I was the good straight-A student).

    The Montessori approach of “follow the interests of the child” seems like a more natural way to encourage lifelong learning.

    A friend was mentioning a few weeks ago how he hated school–“I loved to understand things. I didn’t want to memorize things just to memorize things.” Everything changed for him in 4th grade, where the teacher stated if the child didn’t want to listen, fine–they could go to the back of the class and play games as long as they were not disruptive to the front of the class.

    Friend says “Great! This is wonderful–I don’t have to learn! I don’t have to absorb information.” He says 1/2 class was in back of class playing games for a few weeks. Then 1/2 of the kids in the back of their own volition decided they were going to go up front. “I was one of the very last hold-outs to decide I really wanted to learn. What this wise teacher knew is the curious outreaching, this desire to know is an innate impulse. He knew we would rediscover that impulse. It had just covered over by the way we were TAUGHT to learn… He changed my whole relationship with learning. I realized it was innate to me–it wasn’t something I HAD to do.”

    My sense is this NYT article has more to do with kids bristling against being told what and how to learn, and they are discovering their own capacities and following instinct towards cutting-edge topics that schools don’t even address.

    So another funny part of the NYT article is how the boy goes to his room to escape family arguments and plays video games—I did the same thing when I was a kid, except I’d go escape my family by shutting door and delving into the universe of books. What’s the difference?

  • There have also been people to complain that books *are* the distractions.

    I was reminded of that yesterday when I read Montaigne’s “Of Physiognomy” (after you asked on Twitter for favorites — I don’t have one but gave me a reason to start looking). The essay has some good quotes about the benefits of more “natural” types of illiterate knowledge over the knowledge found in books — associating back to Socrates and forward to Rousseau and others.

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  • Eric Gauvin

    To clarify, did you say you’re on the board of directors for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic? I went to their website (link you provided), but I couldn’t find where you are listed.

    • They only posted the committee chairs.

      Get a life, Eric. Really, get a life.

  • Sebastian Stephenson

    “focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making.”

    I think you are spot own because if we did have short attention spans youtube would have not increased to from 20 to 35 hours, in fact it may have declined.

    That said I have actually gotten into reading books thanks to the internet and the web.

    I found a whole new mind by daniel pink on audible.com and got the paperback and now have a huge reading list of books.

    This is really a philosophical augment, weather not being able to read a book is a good thing or bad thing

  • Growing up with a label of ‘Dyslexic’ (why do they make that word so hard do spell? – sorry couldn’t help myself) or “Has difficultly learning” I know where you are coming from that people don’t really understand learning generally. Even my teachers didn’t notice until the end of junior school. After school I found a passion at a tech college, and started getting mostly ‘A’s in all my assignments – never seen before in my school days.
    So for me, my ‘learning difficulty’ was more of a motivation issue. I think if you could measure it, you’d find that more teachers have ‘teaching difficulties’ than students with ‘learning difficulties’. I don’t mean to offend teachers, they have a tough job as it is, here in Australia they are generally under paid, and have to stick to a syllabus that is handed down to them by tradition instead of inovation and are often not given the time or the skills to be able to do any differently.

    Listening to your audio book of WWGD now, which is what brought me to your site, and while I love reading, audio books are great way to multi task during the daily tasks that need less mental input (driving, some exercise), and it works for my learning preference.

    Thanks Jeff, keep up the great work.

  • I think there are some key clues about learning in this new environtment that educators must face:
    – Instant feedback: like in video games, kids want to receive immediate rewards from every step or activity they complete.
    – Social: it has to be connected socially with theirs peers group and others with the same interests.
    – Multipath & Multimedia: we should encourage students to create their learning path in multiple ways, adapting to their motivation, likes and knowledge.
    – Open, but safe: open to have live content, evolving and growing constantly. Specially for kids and teens, we must assure their safety.

    And last but not least, we must consider this issues as a process, as an evolution. There are so many “ancient” rules and inertias to consider it as a disruption. For example, if a school 2.0 was our goal, to get from 1.0 to 1.3 would be a great achivement.

    I believe this is already technically possible, so, lets start working!

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  • “leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.”

    Very much in tune with my “Discipline vs. ‘Field’ Discourse” … only I would rather speak of “One God Parenthesis”.

    Main points about what I termed “field” discourse (as opposed to disciplinary):

    1. It is a balancing (not planned balance) between symbolic order and semiotic experience (in Julia Kristeva’s sense).

    2. It is a discourse produced as existential need, not as instrument. There are no clearly articulated intentions, plan, strategies, purpose, conclusions. The discourse is not produced as “useful”. This does not mean that it could not eventually turn out to be very useful.

    3. The “field” discourse does not convey a totalizing “idea”… So, we have a dis-course conveying by de-finition many interpretations – and re-interpretations.

    4. This rhetorical discourse necessarily produces confusion – it con-fuses experience and knowledge (semiotic and symbolic). It does not “translate” experience into knowledge.

    5. This rhetoric is suspicious. Because it reveals a fundamental undecidability.

    6. This poly-logical rhetoric is not an evolution of author’s ideas, nor is it a revolution against ideas of other authors. It is a co-evolution and ongoing mutual displacements between a personal stand and cultural context. There is no author in the traditional sense (author/audience). The thinker/speaker/writer/designer is a mediator between cultural realities (semiotic and symbolic) – facilitating tendencies for self-organization which are always pre-existing in any context. There is no text, but always, and only, a con-text.

    • Emil,
      Please take no insult but I don’t know what you’re saying. If you cut out the academic jargon and restate it simply, what’s the thesis?

      • Jeff… you got me – I copied/pasted from a paper I wrote back in 1991 as a PhD student at U of Mich.

        I didn’t think I was “out of line” in terms of jargon in the context of this (from the page about the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” you linked to):

        “… contrastive analysis of the parenthetical phase in relation to what came before and/or after, with regard say to cognition, or under the auspices of a ‘contextual formalism’; the intriguing compatibilities, despite the technological differences, between oral, ‘pre-parenthetical’ culture and digital, ‘post-parenthetical’; the confusions, challenges and opportunities attendant on the opening of the parenthesis in the early-modern period, and on its closing in the post-modern.”

        Anyway – here is my “God (paren)thesis” in down-to-earth terms.

        It’s high time to accept (and accommodate for) the passing of cultural forms (think books) that:

        1. Take pieces of past experiences and structure them into “stories”
        2. Intend to be useful (in some pre-ordained view of the world)
        3. Submit to a single idea (or a coherent cluster of ideas)
        4. Try to translate (“print”) transitory experience into permanent knowledge
        5. Try to suggest certainty
        6. Try to suggest a single ultimate point of view/origin/authority.

        The initial title of my paper was “Towards a New/Old Way of Thinking/Writing/Designing…” (see it here -http://sotirov.com/2004/08/20/discipline-vs-field-discourse).

        By 1993, I started seeing the Internet hypertextuality as the grave digger of anything “structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled”… including universities. So I promptly dropped out of the PhD program and went into software/Internet entrepreneurship.

        What baffles me though is these ideas still being talked about as if they were new/obscure/controversial…

        • Emil,
          Love it. Get it.
          I particularly love that you saw the fuse burning in ’93 and shifted.

        • Thank you Jeff!

  • Failed at formatting – only the first paragraph of my previous comment was supposed to be in italics.

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  • I think we are starting to see the long tail of learning, and this puts a hell lot of pressure over our current education systems. When it arrives in full force we’re going to see not only a huge shift in education but in every aspects of our lives. But the risk I see (everything has two sides, right?) is how to achieve an equilibrium between a deep and general understanding that I think it’s needed and the risk of by diversifying too much our knowledge fall into Infobesity [http://www.bubblegeneration.com/2010/11/infobesity.html]. You have to learn some basic things before you can start learning on your own (you need to understand how to move in order to get to where you are going) and that can be a challenge if there’s too much pressure to “just let the kid learn whatever he wants in whatever form he wants”.

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