Stupid Google and Teaching Reading

My girl Dina pointed me towards an Atlantic Magazine article titled Is Google Making Us Stupid that has caused quite an uproar this week.  Author Nicholas Carr’s central premise is that internet reading has changed the way our brains work for the worse.

Here’s a quote that I think encapsulates Carr’s assertion:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional
sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging
as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and
abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to
avoid reading in the traditional sense.

I sense a bit of bias in these words because they suggest that the
“power browsing through horizontal titles” is inherently negative.  Is it possible that this kind of “horizontal reading” is actually more
sophisticated because it allows readers to easily make connections
between topics of related interest?

Here’s what I mean:

A central element of my daily lessons are current event readings from the Internet. Because
each event includes extensive collections of related links, my students
can “power browse” through a topic at great depth with little hassle.  They can often find “time line articles” that show how a particular event has gradually developed, Q+A bits that lay out the central issues in each event, and external websites that provide additional resources on the topic of study.

Need an example?

Here’s a current event that we studied earlier this year about a group of hostages taken by FARC, a rebel group in Colombia that has been fighting against the government for decades:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7188509.stm

We’d been studying the different ways that people stand up to power all year—and South America is one of the required elements of our curriculum—-so learning a bit about FARC was important.  Besides, middle schoolers are naturally drawn to rebel groups!  Any time that you can talk about justice and injustice with preteens, you’ll have a captive audience.

(Pardon the pun)

Now, the challenge is that issues like the rebellion in Colombia are complex times ten.  There are often multiple perspectives, causes and characters that you need to sift through to get a good understanding of what is really going on.

In a web-free world, this sifting would be so cumbersome that no one would ever do it!  Heck, when I was twelve, I would have had to pull out about 67 encyclopedia volumes to learn enough to totally get what was going on in Colombia—-either that, or I would have read a short summary from page 63 of the Social Studies book.

Sound familiar?

But check out the “Features and Analysis” sidebar on this current event.  Amazing, isn’t it?

With a bit of Carr’s “horizontal reading,” my kids can easily investigate beyond the initial article they’re introduced to.  They can read background information about the leaders of FARC.  They can get a country guide that introduces them to Colombia, view pictures and short video clips about the crisis, and read articles about related events that took place both before the article we’re studying and that have taken place since our article was written.

All of this extra information scaffolds learning for my students.  Kids that aren’t comfortable with the reading level of current events can build a background of knowledge through images and video before reading.  Kids that are completely driven by a topic can explore it in great depth quickly and easily.

As a reading teacher, I’m just not sure that’s a bad thing.

So what do you think?

Are digital opportunities for reading inherently bad?  Are we all becoming a nation of scatterbrains that can’t focus for more than two or three mouse clicks before losing interest?

Or is it possible that digital reading might just be a better experience for students?  Has digital content made accessing knowledge easier for your kids—and thereby made deep investigation more likely than ever before?

Most importantly, what actions can we take to ensure that the internet-based
reading experiences don’t “make our kids stupid?”

After all, the internet ain’t going away anytime soon!

 

6 comments

  1. Adam

    Bill,
    The other question seems to be related to what we are asking students to read for when the go out on the internet. I think teachers need to understand that the task that we ask students to perform will also determine how they interact with web searches and use the information. If you are asking me to do a scavenger hunt for information about a topic then I will probably read to get answers and fill in a document, but if you ask me to write an essay describing what the world would be like if the south won the Civil War then I will have to interact a lot differently with my resources.

  2. Fred

    I am reminded of a book by Marc Presnsky, “Don’t Bother me Mom, I’m Learning.” His premiss is that Digital Natives (kids) have brains that are physically different from Digital Immigrants (Us) and that learning via digital games is “one good way to reach the digital natives” I have always wondered why teachers are so reluctant to change. Is it a time issue, is it a training issue or is it comfort issue. Some are just comfortable running off a reading packet from 1992 and calling it good. We have to teach the kids we have, not the ones we wished we had.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Renee wrote:
    That’s why (traditionally) news articles have pithy headlines and start with the a “lead” that highlight the most important points first, filling in the details later. Very few people read every word of every article in a paper or magazine. Why would that change in the online environment?
    Interesting comments, Renee—and I’m glad to hear that Journalism has recognized power browsing and horizontal reading for years.
    I was starting to think that I might just be a dysfunctional reader!
    Do you think that the impact of power browsing online might be greater on today’s generation only because we do so much more reading/consuming of media online?
    Maybe Carr’s worries come more as a result of volume than they do as a result of the actual practice of online reading.
    I still agree with Parry though: It is what it is, whether we like it or not!
    We’ve got to adapt rather than resist.
    Rock on,
    Bill

  4. Renee Moore

    Bill,
    Your comments on that article made me look at it again and got me thinking. As a former journalist and long-time high school journalism teacher, I was taught and have taught that what Carr calls “power browsing” is exactly how most people read traditional print newspapers. That’s why (traditionally) news articles have pithy headlines and start with the a “lead” that highlight the most important points first, filling in the details later. Very few people read every word of every article in a paper or magazine. Why would that change in the online environment? Similarly, when a person browses across an article on a topic of personal interest, the reader stops and gives that piece closer scrutiny. This has been going on for generations.
    Of course, the Atlantic and its authors would like to think they appeal to a highly intellectual audience; most of whom hang on every word of every article they print (LOL). I wonder how much of a readership spike they got from Google and the blogosphere because of this article?

  5. Parry

    I think the last line of your post sums it up: “the Internet ain’t going away anytime soon.”
    The fact is, whether we like “power browsing” or not, that’s the way people are now and will continue to consume information in our increasingly digital and information-saturated world. It’s like scribes in the 1500s bemoaning this new-fangled printing press thing — “Can you believe it? Now that they can mass-produce books, they’re printing all of this horrible literature that no one should read!”
    Maybe so, but that’s the new reality.

  6. Carly Albee

    Just the other day, I was metacognating about my own power browsing through twitter. It’s amazing how quickly I can digest (without chewing it all up) hours and hours worth of tweets.
    Also, in my goal to reach “the end of the internet,” I have no choice but to power browse. Really though, I think our minds are adapting to the different forms of information that are out there today…there’s more…and it’s better, you just have to find it. Power browsing isn’t a “stupider” action. On the contrary, it shows how brilliantly our minds evolve to fit our new environment.
    P.S. Do I get disqualified from talking about intelligent ideas when I use the word “stupider?”