The Myths of Technology Series: “Technology Makes Us Dumb”

For ISTE 2014 in Atlanta, I will be presenting on the “Myths of Technology and Learning”. As I am really thinking about what I will be sharing at the conference, I wanted to write a series of blog posts that will help myself and others “rethink” some of these statements or arguments that you hear in relation to technology in school.  I will be writing a series of blog posts on different myths, and will be posting them on this page.  I hope to generate discussion on these topics to further my own learning in this area and appreciate any comments you have on each idea shared.

The Myths of Technology Series: “Technology Makes Us Dumb”

“In short, people who are able to keep up with technology will outsmart those who don’t (even more than they do now). Therefore, educators, parents and employers should try to foster an appetite for complexity, a curious and hungry mind…” From Is Technology Making Us Stupid (and Smarter)?, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D.

When I was a kid, I had this ability to memorize every single phone number of seemingly hundreds of people in my life.  Now I can safely say that I know four.  My mom, my work, my own phone number, and 911.  There are hundreds of numbers that are stored in my phone, more than I could have ever possibly memorized.  Did I lose the ability to memorize or did I lose the need to memorize?  Am I “dumber” than I was before because of this lack of “rolodex-like” memory, or, is someone “dumber” because they don’t know how to put the information in their phone in the first place?  Who loses out more?

The argument that I have heard often is that “technology makes us dumb”, and I will admit, things have changed a lot in a short amount of time.  In a hilarious bit by Pete Holmes, he talks about how Google is “ruining our lives”, and he states that, “the time between ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’ is so brief that ‘knowing’ feels exactly like ‘not knowing’.”  We don’t “wonder” as much anymore and we have to make sure that we allow our kids, “to be curious, to imagine deeply and to think creatively”, that we were afforded as children (and adults).

A shift in thinking?

In one of the many articles I found when researching this topic, entitled, “Education in the information age: is technology making us stupid?”, they author posts a powerful statement on a possible shift in the world of education:

“So perhaps what is more important is not whether technology is making us stupid but if educational systems need to shift from teaching us what to think, to showing us how to think.” Jason Lodge

Is the idea that “technology makes us dumb” so readily shared by many because it actually has lessened our “knowledge”, or because it is throwing what we have done in the past, and what we are comfortable with, out the window?

Dan Brown, a former university student, posted an “Open Letter to Educators” talked about the shift that has happened in our world with the democratization of information and how knowledge becoming “free” to the masses has made many aspects of traditional education irrelevant.  He makes an ominous statement to educators in a video that has been viewed over 276 000 times:

“Educators of the world…you don’t need to change anything.  You simply need to understand, that the world is changing, and if you don’t change with it, the world will decide that it doesn’t need you anymore.”

Perhaps we need to view the idea of “knowledge” and “intelligence” in a different light.

Creating opportunities 

One of the biggest opportunities technology has afforded us as an individuals, and more importantly our students, is opportunities to learn that work for us as the individual.  Assistive technologies have been used for years in classrooms, but with a push towards “Universal Design for Learning” (Ira Socol is one blogger that has really taught me a lot in this area), there is a focus on what works for every individual learner.  I think back to my days in school and how tired my hand would become quickly from “cursive writing”, and how that physical fatigue, even small in nature, would quickly lead to mental fatigue.  Now, instead of writing notes in a book which was the standard practice when I was a student, I now have the opportunity to write on my phone, tablet, computer, or even record my own voice using Evernote to come back and revisit ideas.  This opportunity to use a myriad of tools has allowed me to learn in a way that works best for me, not what someone else might be comfortable using.

David Crystal, a professor who has researched the the impact of texting on literacy, discusses the idea that the use of mobile technology has actually improved our ability to write.  His research led him to find that the earlier you have a mobile device, the better your literacy scores while also improving spelling.  If you summarized his research, it would be that people are becoming more literate because of the use of mobile devices because they are reading and writing more.  People often argue the opposite, not because it is wrong, but because reading and writing on a device looks different than how we did it as children.  If you think about it, how many times as a kid were you reading, writing, and walking at the exact same time?

The simplest things with technology can make a huge difference with students.  Inspired by the movie, “The King’s Speech”, a teacher gave a student with a stammer, the opportunity to speak while using headphones and listening to music:

This technology gave a student a voice that they might not have been comfortable using before.  This does not feel like “dumber” to me.

The world at your fingertips

So when you can Google everything and all of the information in the world now resides in your pocket, we have to start thinking differently about school.  If I asked a teacher a question, and they used Google, or tweeted out the question and found the information through a social network, many people would consider that adult “resourceful”.  Yet if a student does the same thing, they are considered a cheater.  Ewan McIntosh has talked about the idea of “Google vs. Non-Googleable Questions” that leads to higher level thinking.  It is not that content has become unimportant, but as Thomas Friedman states in his article on how to get a job at Google, “the world only cares about what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it)”.

Information to a library was never seen as a detriment to knowledge, in fact, it was often seen as an advantage.  If you actually look deeper into that process, many students would take what was found in the library as “fact” as someone had went through that information for you as someone had most likely went through that information for us.  When we now carry the information (way more information than could ever be stored in books in a library) in our pocket, we have to teach our students to discern what is credible information, while also giving them opportunities to do something with that information.  A library in a school would never be seen as a detriment to knowledge; neither should the vast library on our phone.

As many have pushed back on the idea of allowing students to bring in devices to exams, we have to think that if you can simply google the answer to a question on a test, is the question really that strong?  The shift in schools should not be away from content; the shift should be what do we do and create with the content.

A focus on creation

“If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. . . We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” Cecil Day-Lewis

Clive Thompson, author of “Smarter Than You Think“, is a strong believer that technology has given us opportunities to learn in ways that we have not been afforded to us in the past.  In his article, “Why Even The Worst Bloggers Are Making Us Smarter“, he discusses how having an audience can actually help us to think deeper about what we are sharing:

 

Literacy in North America has historically been focused mainly on reading, not writing; consumption, not production. While many parents worked hard to ensure their children were regular readers, they rarely pushed them to become regular writers. But according to Deborah Brandt, a scholar who has researched American literacy in the 20th and 21st centuries, the advent of digital communications has helped change that notion.

We are now a global culture of avid writers, one almost always writing for an audience. When you write something online—whether it’s a one-sentence status update, a comment on someone’s photo, or a thousand-word post—you’re doing it with the expectation that someone might read it, even if you’re doing it anonymously.

Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.

Social scientists have identified something called the audience effect—the shift in our performance when we know people are watching. It isn’t always positive. In live, face-to-face situations, like sports or concerts, the audience effect can make athletes or musicians perform better—but it can sometimes psych them out and make them choke, too.

Yet studies have found that the effort of communicating to someone else forces you to pay more attention and learn more.

Thompson also discusses that before the Internet, people rarely wrote after high school or college, but more and more, people are writing because they have the opportunity to connect easily with others.  Although school has had a strong emphasis on “reading”, writing seems to get much less attention.  With the ability to write about what you are interested in to an audience that cares, it can be the difference between someone being literate or fluent.

Writing makes us smarter.  We often focus so much in education about the notion of our students “googling” but we should think more about the content they can create so they can be “googled”.  The biggest shift on the Internet is not necessarily the knowledge we can access, but more the knowledge that we can easily create and share.

As Thompson states, “The members of ‘dumbest generation’ aren’t just passively consuming media any more. They’re talking back to it.”

More than just information

“The smartest person in the room, is the room.” David Weinberger

I have used this quote in every single presentation I have given in the last four years, and have encouraged participants to share their knowledge through social media outlets such as Twitter through the use of a hashtag. It is my way, as the presenter, even sometimes considered to be the “expert in the room”, to continuously learn from others, whether they are in the room or not.   No matter my abundance of knowledge in any topic, I am never smarter than everyone combined in front of me., nor out there on the Internet.  The knowledge that is out there online now is similar to an abundance of a natural resource found in any area.  It is not about understanding the benefit of this resource; we know knowledge is power.  It is simply learning how to tap into it, access it, and using it in meaningful ways.

My question to the Weinberger quote is, “How big is your room?”  Are you limited to the five people in the meeting, the 50 person on your staff, or to anyone willing to connect?

Yet sometimes the audience just needs to be one person.

When one of our students blogged about a booked named “The Dot”, she was surprised that approximately five hours after it was posted, the author commented back to her.  This impact from one person and the connection facilitated brings a different type of motivation to students that was non-existent when I went to school.  As Steven Johnson states, “Chance favours the connected mind”, and we need to take advantage of this new opportunity that is afforded to both ourselves and our students.  Someone once told me that after years of school, when students hand in assignments to their teacher, they just want it to be “good enough” but when they are writing for an authentic audience, they want it to be “good”.

Conclusion

The jump in our knowledge and understanding can be monumental because of technology. Educators just need to learn to tap into the opportunities that are afforded to us in an increasingly networked world and utilize to its fullest potential.   It is not only about “knowing”.  There is so much more we can do with and for our students because of technology.  Let’s take advantage not only of the information, but the access to one another.

4 comments for “The Myths of Technology Series: “Technology Makes Us Dumb”

  1. May 14, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Wonderful article! Thank you for articulating your points so beautifully. i will share this with both staff and parents. The video is incredibly moving. We have had a similar experience with a student who was unable to sit and complete his daily independent work. The teacher allowed him to bring his ipod and headphones, and it made an enormous difference in his ability to focus and stay on task.

  2. May 16, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Hi George .. You are very much right and i support you as it actually making us dumb and its a great myth around us.

  3. June 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Is really technology makes us Dumb?

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