Online skimming vs. reading Middlemarch

Skimming online makes “deep reading” more difficult, according to the Washington Post. As adults spend five hours a day on laptops or mobile devices, we’re developing “digital brains.”

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. 

College students can’t read the classics, professors tell Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

 “They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

. . . “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Daniel Willingham, also a cognitive scientist, doesn’t think brains change that easily. Don’t blame the Internet, he writes on Real Clear Education. We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to

A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to.

“The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully,” he concludes. “The bad news is that we don’t want to.”

Readers don’t understand more when they read for pleasure on paper versus on screen, he writes. Comprehension is the same for textbook reading too, though on-screen reading takes longer.

Attention must be paid

Instead of catering to short attention spans, schools should teach students to pay attention, writes Benjamin Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor, in Slate.

Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience.

Maintaining attention is a skill that can be learned, he argues. Students need to exercise their “attention muscle” to strengthen it.

Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

Young people raised on brief, simplified info-bits won’t realize what they’re missing, Schwartz believes. “Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.”

“In the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short,” writes Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.

 Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”

Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions.

Kamenetz sees the “pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style” as a sign of a new power dynamic.  “Many people have something to say.” In the traditional classroom, “traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.” On the Internet, no one has to listen to anyone else.

Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?”

Teachers: Technology cuts attention spans

Diverted and distracted by technology, students can’t focus or persevere, say teachers in two new surveys.

In a Pew Internet Project survey, nearly 90 percent of teachers said digital technologies are creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  Although the Internet helps students develop better research skills, teachers said, 64 felt technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

Seventy-three percent of teachers said entertainment media has cut students’ attention spans, according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit. A majority said it hurt students’ writing and speaking skills.

“Distraction” could be seen as a judgment call, Pew’s Kristen Purcell told the New York Times. Some teachers think education “must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn.”

But teachers worry about that too, the Times reports.

“I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said Hope Molina-Porter, 37, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., who has taught for 14 years. She teaches accelerated students, but has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of their written work.

She said she did not want to shrink from the challenge of engaging them, nor did other teachers interviewed, but she also worried that technology was causing a deeper shift in how students learned. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.

“Are we contributing to this?” Ms. Molina-Porter said. “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”

Both younger and older teachers worried about technology’s impact on their students’ learning.

It’s not likely students have lost the ability to focus, responds cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. But flashy technology with immediate rewards may have eroded students’ willingness to focus on mundane tasks.

Kids learn early that very little effort can bring a big payoff, he writes.

When a toddler is given a toy that puts on a dazzling display of light and sound when a button is pushed, we might be teaching him this lesson.

In contrast, the toddler who gets a set of blocks has to put a heck of a lot more effort (and sustained attention) into getting the toy to do something interesting–build a tower, for example, that she can send crashing down.

“It’s hard for me to believe that something as fundamental to cognition as the ability to pay attention can moved around a whole lot,” Willingham writes. “It’s much easier for me to accept that one’s beliefs–beliefs about what is worthy of my attention, beliefs about how much effort I should dispense to tasks–can be moved around, because beliefs are a product of experience.”

A moron with a computer is still a moron

A Moron with a Computer Is Still a Moron writes David P. Goldman on Pajamas Media, in response to the New York Times story, In the Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores.

Chinese parents are buying their children pianos, violins and music lessons, while “New Age nerds” try “to keep kids “engaged” with video games.

It is the antithesis of education, which begins with discipline and extended concentration span.

Technology is transformational when it’s designed into schools, not layered on top of the same old stuff, writes Tom Vander Ark on Getting Smart. “The story of this decade is that personal digital learning will change the world.”