Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jet Skiing on the Internet

This is a response to a blog on another site, where the author asked if Google was making us stupid, and cited this article, by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic Monthly.

Here is my initial response, with a follow-up:
I find myself thinking more broadly, but I don't see myself thinking any less deeply. What I regret is not having a book in my hand that will lead me into tangents as I research an answer - those tangents are often the best place for inspiration! But the internet does the same thing in its own way. Looking up something on Google Images leads to completely unexpected places, and putting together those connections inspires a type of creativity that I find very powerful. So I don't see myself thinking less deeply as a result of the internet, but I do see myself thinking more broadly. I typically keep my internet thinking and my book thinking and my conversation thinking separate, so I believe that as long as we teach and encourage all three skills, our students will be ready for what faces them.

That said, I haven't read the article yet, and have already written my response. That's certainly a habit I've developed, because I do find myself skimming all the time when I read on the internet, which is not at all what I do when I have a book in my hand... But I'll read the article now. ;-)
And then I read the article, and replied with this:
and now that I've read it (or read/skimmed it, as I usually do with the internet)...

I agree that our brains are starting to function differently. But I'm sure they did that when mathematics was developed, when quantum physics took hold, when cars were invented, or as Carr notes, when the printing press took over from hand writing.

My brain feels more fluid now, and I agree with the jet-ski image that Carr offers, it's true the book-reading/depth capacity needs to be exercised just like the body does. When I am trying to work out something complex, I never use a keyboard - I insist on writing it out longhand first, because the brain is forced to move more slowly. I won't allow students to read assignments online, and I insist that they have pens in their hands as they read, and will often check their notes. Journals must all be written long-hand. Perhaps because I'm an English teacher, I do a bit more reading than the average person, but I think we need to value each of the methods of learning as complementary, rather than feeling that one is replacing another.

I hear all the time in the Upper School about how our students don't have long attention spans, or that they seem uninterested in complex critical thinking. That - across the board for four years now - has been the opposite of my experience. Most of the time, when a student comes to ask me what they think is a simple question, I hand them a book, tell them to digest it fully, and then come ask me again. This is separate from what I require in class. I keep a large pile of books on my desk for this very purpose. I will also typically hand similar books to their friends or to Julie Miller (the glorious Sun around which the students orbit in the Upper School), and I find that quite deep conversations result and reverberate in unexpected places. The students typically come back not only having read and fully digested the whole book, but asking for another. I've loaned out so many books now that I can't keep track of them. That part of their brains is hungry to be exercised, and I think the more we jet-ski, the more we are going to long for scuba diving.

What is key, though, is that we must rely on the curiosity of our students, and help coach it along, rather than expecting them to be automatically curious about what we find interesting. Once we have made a move toward them, I always find that they very quickly move back towards us, and then prod incessantly for more and more. I had an incredibly difficult time in my study hall this year getting any work done, because I was discussing all the parallel syllabi that had emerged in our students. The internet pulls the brain horizontally, but at some point, it reaches maximum stretch, and begins to curve back in again. In the same way, online work is so isolating that we've seen a huge rise in online social networking. Sure, it's not face to face, but there's a different type of communication that happens here that wouldn't happen in the cafeteria, and I value that function too.

I have little fear of what Google represents - we will see some temporary setbacks as our brains evolve, but what is most important in our brains will remain a longing that will demand to be filled.
I put another poll about this on the right side.


Andrew Elizalde said...

You have said that "we must rely on the curiosity of our students, and help coach it along, rather than expecting them to be automatically curious about what we find interesting". I agree but must point out that inspiring curiosity in courses such as mathematics requires time to develop historical context, look at the part in relationship to the whole, explore oddities or apparent contradictions, consider various applications, and engage in the process of invention and discovery. In my opinion this is time worth spending. It was a consideration of these things that first caused me to love mathematics! But unfortunately achieving depth at the cost of breadth is not unanimously valued by all of my professional peers.

Not every class can be a survey course. You can only scratch your fingers in the dirt for so long before someone gets frustrated by an insatiated desire to dig now an then.

Joshu said...

Agreed. I guess what I meant here is that what the internet does is allow broad thinking, but we need to practice deep thinking as well. That's what I do when I sink into teaching one book for a month. Working on the internet to the exclusion of all else will probably atrophy depth thinking, but that's not to say it doesn't stretch the brain in other valuable directions. They need to function together. And like the earlier post on internet writing, I also believe as you suggest that too much breadth will eventually cause a longing to go deeper. Like the author there said - Paper is the new Prozac.

I would say that inspiring curiosity in English requires time too. Not many students in general look back on Wuthering Heights or A Room of One's Own as their favorite works of literature, but when we dig enough, there are students who swear by them. Like many great artworks, they do not reward superficial analysis.

But curiosity does start on the surface. It is that which causes the urge to dig deeper. It is the promise of hidden treasure.

I think we're saying the same thing here - stretch and flex - both good exercise.

Andrew Elizalde said...

You're right. Inspiring curiosity in English does require time as well. In retrospect I think that if some of my high school teachers would have spent time inspiring my curiosity rather than simply outlining a prepackaged analysis of each text that I would have been more able to appreciate works such as Wuthering Heights. After some reflection upon my earlier comment, I confess that I am guilty of assuming that such inspiration comes more naturally when considering an artistic text rather than a compilation of numbers and mathematical functions. My experience alone suggests that this is not the case.

Joshu said...

It's a natural assumption to make. It seems that there are multiple levels of inspiration in the arts - there are moviegoers, art spectators, critics, amateur practitioners, professionals, and true artists. The last two categories are most definitely not the same, though they can be in rare circumstances. From what I see of mathematics, there are people who do it because they have to and people who are passionate mathematicians. There doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground. The deeper levels for artists and mathematicians are probably equivalent, both in the intense realizations they offer and in the difficulty and patience it takes to achieve them, but there seems to be more room for passionate mediocrity in the arts.

And since there are levels for passionate mediocrity, the frustration I feel has more to do with the complacency of those who practice it. It's like achieving level 2 on a video game with infinite levels. Achieving level 2 is a quick and easy fix that many assume to be the end of the road. The higher levels are much more fulfilling, but the discipline required to achieve them becomes much more complex.

So perhaps in math, the goal is how to maintain discipline and curiosity and intensity with a promised reward that only comes after a lot of time and effort, but in the arts and English, the game is how to keep people going despite minor and superficial satisfactions that can seem like the end of the road.

I really don't know much about math, so I'm making a lot of assumptions here. I am enjoying hunting down these distinctions, though, because I think, left to its own devices, my brain would work like a mathematician's, and I find myself drawn to math concepts without the language or the understanding to express them, sort of like I feel when I watch Baryshnikov dance. Perhaps if I had a really good math teacher in high school, I would have been quite a different person.