In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicolas Carr demonstrates why his reading life has suffered as a result of his extended habitual time on the internet. Carr’s implication is that the medium, applied over time, is changing our brains and our world view along with it. He compares the culture that arose out of the print literacy of the Gutenberg era which curated and required deep cognitive thought to the contemporary culture that responds to a broad range of compressed material that is often visual and flat by nature, as well as being one bit of millions of similar pieces of input. So our brains are be re-wired to attend broadly and horizontally, if you will, but not to make the cognitive effort reading a complex text requires.
What does this have to do with a photo of a specimen from Psycho Donuts? Well, I read the excerpt online by DailyGood.org from psychologist Louis Cozolino’s new book, Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain, written to apply the lessons of neuroscience to the classroom. In the online article, one of the Cozolino’s brain bytes number 6: The brain has a short attention span and needs repetition and multiple-channel processing for deeper learning to occur. His explanation proceeds, “Curiosity, the urge to explore and the impulse to seek novelty…” are survival features built into our minds. So he claims that not only do we learn better in brief intervals, but we need novelty. Exciting curiosity gives neuro-chemical feedback that heightens learning. And here I think we are using “brain science” to say what we want to say about what we now believe about reading/learning because we’ve been re-wired by the medium. The truth is that it takes cognitive depth and a vertical attention to writing to constitute what anyone would call “deeper learning” — a new term from our flat world of re-wired brains. In another era, meaning a decade ago, no one would have used such a redundant term, “deeper learning” because learning was intrinsically going deeper, not shallow.
I was rating the importance of Cozolino’s nine points critically from my thirty years of experience as an educator and from the point of view of someone who has in recent years become fascinated by the ways that neuroscience is growing and delivering new perspectives on our mental functions. Of course an educator is interested and I agreed with the philosophy of pedagogy, at least on the surface. Certainly the need for short duration of instruction and novel multiple-channel approaches interested me. However, here’s a point. I will not read the book now that I’ve read the online blurb article. I have given the author the classic Nichol Carr Shallows treatment. I’ve looked broadly and horizontally at the ideas but I will not invest the effort to read deeply about the neuroscience. I trust my experience with education to help me interpret his work, but I will take the bullet points, as it were, as my information.
And I suspect that I want to hear something novel in the world of educational theory, or some piece of advice as a teacher to try out in my classroom. So far I read that neuroscience confirms what good practice has already revealed. Not that we all practice at the top of our game every day in every classroom. That is another matter.
As a reading interventionist and veteran educator I will generalize that we are seeing more students coming up the ranks who have “attention problems” and who struggle to attend in typical classroom settings. Is this perhaps more evidence of Nicholas Carr’s argument? My 5th graders three years ago readily admitted, after logging and analyzing their reading habits and time spent with electronic devices that they devoted at least four times as much attention to electronics over the printed page, even magazines.
So, the doughnut from the local place near SJSU called Psycho Donuts is really just a cake made with a lot of sugar cooked in a deep fat method and decorated with more sugar. Isn’t that what a doughnut is by nature? But novelty brings folks into the shop to pay more for these doughnuts than the average. And, with the quirkiness of the doughnut design the customer often consumes more doughnut at one sitting than in a standard shop.
I am beginning to think that Nicolas Carr’s admission that his brain was changed by excessive time online is true for me. I seem unable to write unless I can access my blog on WordPress. I have summer reading I’ve begun but haven’t finished one of the five books. I have my reasons and excuses for distraction: other obligations and projects, however, I’m becoming perplexed at my superficiality of thought. This is not simply age-related.
In my quest for territory to write about for the summer intensive institute, I seem to be skating back and forth on the surface of recent exposure to various articles, ideas, conversations, and teacher demonstrations. However, I am as yet unable to make one hold still, or be able to follow my own line of thinking into any depth. I’m in the shallows and I know it.
What’s a poor brain to do?