Echos of “You’ll rot your brain”-In Response to New York Times “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say”

I hear echos of a generation past, and perhaps all generations past, the echo of “you’ll rot your brain.”

In a November 1, 2012 article in the New York Post, “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say” the author tells us how worried teachers are that students aren’t focused.   The blame for this they lay squarely at the feet of technology, although the author adds this caveat:

“The researchers note that their findings represent the subjective views of teachers and should not be seen as definitive proof that widespread use of computers, phones and video games affects students’ capability to focus.”

And as I read this I distinctly recall sitting on a black and white couch, age 6, being told “you’ll rot your brain out if you watch too much TV.”

Is it true?

I can say that I have a Master’s Degree in Space Studies (rocket science, astronomy, and policy) from the University of North Dakota.  Perhaps had I not become a media junkie I would instead have earned a Ph.D., but then my career isn’t over and I still might.  Either way, that is so subjective of a measure of whether my brain was rotted that even I can’t tell you if I might have been more had I never been introduced to the tube.

A little pedagogy

When I was in undergrad I was introduced to the concept of mind mapping.  The idea that people do not naturally think sequential thoughts in outline or essay format.  We connect ideas through strings of ideas, and the stronger and more varied the connections between ideas the richer your understanding of a concept can be said to be.

The concept resonated with me and is something I have maintained throughout my career both as student an teacher.  Thoughts are webbed and not linear.  In fact a recent experience with a medication adjustment caused my thoughts to become linear for a few days, and as I described that to my friends I can only describe it as feeling less intelligent. So again subjectively I believe in the mind map conceptual structure and find myself unhappy when that is hampered.

Applying the pedagogy to is it true?

So if people don’t think linearly, and technology creates an increase in webbed access to information it could be that technology is helping us be more of what we already were, and the teachers bemoaning this are trying to force the cat back into the bag.

It could also be, to be fair, that people are letting technology think for them since technology already has the webbing embedded.  So it is possible we are learning less, navigating more.

But does that mean our brains will rot?

To answer this question the author relied on two studies.  I like studies…I’m a science and evidence kinda gal.  So I delved into further Study 1 “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World.”  The crux of this study is not that brains are rotting.  Interestingly this is a primarily positive review of the development of online researching with one significant caveat: Students need more consistent and better guidance on how to evaluate the quality of sources. No longer is it clear whose website is the equivalent of a tabloid and whose is legitimate research.  Students no longer have a clearinghouse of librarians (they didn’t used to be media specialists) pre-screening the materials actually housed within the libraries shelves.  When you went to the library to do research you were relatively assured that if it made it one those shelves it was a decent source.  As the library has become digital and often doesn’t sit on a shelf anywhere there are no gatekeepers.  So students need to become experts in judging things like bias, opinion vs evidence backed opinion, weight of evidence.

My heart skips with glee.  Teach research skills and keep the technology I roar!!!!  

Then I turned to Study 2 Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View From The Classroom.    This study is a study of opinion, and even more distressing does not compare that opinion with any hard data on achievement.  So while opinion can be useful, I am concerned right off the bat that there is a HUGE bias issue.  Basically the teachers were asked has media helped or hurt performance in certain areas, and then further if it hurt which media do you blame.

First, as a classroom- blended- online- educator of 17 years I am floored by any teacher who is ballsy enough to think they even know which media the kids are into.  And given my own experience with my own kids, I would venture to say that as soon as an adult thinks its what they’re doing my kids will switch media to avoid the adult scrutiny.  Nowhere in this study do I see a result of a “what media are your students accessing regularly?” question.  That means that there is no basis to even know if these educators are in tune or out of touch.  This by itself is enough to make me rail at this “research” methodology.  Add to that that “for this study, all respondents had been classroom teachers in grades K-12 during the previous year” meaning no online teachers were polled.  There is also no statement as to the extent of technology exposure and usage the teachers themselves had.

I found these tables on page 16 of the report

I find it Somewhat telling that the majority opinion is that things are getting better in all subjects except writing.  However, they have failed in my opinion to successfully link this to technology use.

But let’s assume the author premise is true writing skills are bad and not improving for arguments sake.  Is the lesson here that their brains are rotting?  Or is the lesson here that linear communication patterns which have been the norm for a few centuries are not in tune with webbed communication patterns. I find this idea intriguing and may devote some time to this in future blog posts.

Overall perceptions

While based on studies, the gloom and doom opinion “among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks” does not have a supportive enough body of evidence that I can concur with the summary offered by NYT author, .  So I cannot support a “you’ll rot your brains” approach to technologically limiting our students.

I still find this to be a very subjective and possibly generation gap biased assessment. The research has not been done, and Mr. Richtel is, respectfully, exemplifying the negative behavior noted in Study 1 by using Study 2, repeating a source because he found it on the internet and is seemed germane without truly delving into the veracity of the claims and the weight of the evidence. I would encourage greater study with special attention to teacher bias and which would include a wider variety of teachers including those who have embraced technology within their teaching.

This post was prompted by the article Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say. Based on the blog prompt for the iNACOL Blogging Online Educators group


3 thoughts on “Echos of “You’ll rot your brain”-In Response to New York Times “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say”

  1. Ah yes brain rot. I was teaching when schools were offline. Yes we had cave shelters then and used actual chalk. The X-treme worry was that intro of the calculator would destroy all future of math(ematicians). We survived that. I agree with first study that students need skills to vet crap from crapola from the genuine. Reading skills whatever the media. Great post. Thank-you.

    • Thank you. Yes I still encounter the anti-calculator crew from time to time, and amongst the ones who like calculators there is the debate of how much calculator is too much calculator. Personally I vote for fewest buttons which can accomplish the task, but some of these calculators are more like math based laptops.

      I appreciate your comments.

  2. Pingback: Technology – Where is the “-logy”? A call to research. | disruptivity

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