Writing in 1985, Neil Postman made the interesting observation that of the first fifteen U.S. presidents, many of them could walk down the street without being physically recognised yet they would be instantly identifiable by things they had written or speeches they had delivered. Today the opposite is true.
Postman saw 1980s America as a world that celebrated the transient and the superficial, where the power of the written word as a space to formulate and expand on complex arguments gave way to impressionistic understanding and surface engagement. He claims the 19th century was the apogee of human thought where the act of undistracted reading in particular represented “both their connection to and their model of the world.” He saw the advent of mass entertainment TV in the 1980s as a tipping point characterised by an over-saturation of information to the point of total distraction:
“Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”
What’s remarkable about Postman’s dystopian vision is that it was written before the advent of the Internet. The dizzying amount of information now produced daily would have been inconceivable to him yet many of its stupefying effects would have been instantly recognisable. If TV was having this effect on adults 30 years ago, what impact is the Internet having on young people today?
An important new study on student use of the technology has shown that students who have access to the Internet in the classroom are being distracted out of learning in any kind of meaningful way. Students who used laptops in lessons voluntarily logged into a proxy server which monitored their in-class behaviour and researchers found that “the average time spent browsing the web for non-class-related purposes was 37 minutes. Students spent the most time on social media, reading email, shopping for items such as clothes and watching videos.”
An essential point to make here is that an adult using the Internet is not the same as a 15 year old using it. Most adults have developed schemas of knowledge that allow them to navigate the great highways of the Internet, identify subtle exits, negotiate fruitful side-roads and avoid potential dead ends. Asking kids to ‘research a topic on the Internet’ is like dropping a five year old on a motorway and expecting them to find their way home on their tricycle.
An older friend of mine who is a history teacher remarked to me recently that it was about 15 years ago that students who were asked to write assignments on Martin Luther King started handing in essays on the American civil rights leader who nailed 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg in the 16th century and subsequently led the Protestant Church movement until his tragic assassination in 1968. Simply unleashing kids on the Internet with the vague justification of ’21st century skills’ is not just largely ineffective but a dereliction of duty.
Many techno-evangelists cite the vague concept of ‘creativity’ as a justification for the Internet in our classrooms but as Andrew Keen presciently pointed out ten years ago, as ‘truth’ becomes a relative term, not only is real creativity threatened but the wider implications for society are perhaps far more concerning:
This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Darren Rosenblum noted that when teaching a unit on what he thought would be the engaging topic of sexuality and the law, his attempts to provoke discussion with his students was met with a “slew of laptops staring back” at him. He subsequently appealed to students not to bring laptops and created what he felt was a more human connection which in turn led to a better environment for learning: “Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”
Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning.
And that’s the thing about learning, it should be hard. It should be initially challenging and uncomfortable in the short term in order to be effective in the long term, but the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of Web 2.0 Internet has produced some disturbing effects on young people. As Simon Sinek has recently pointed out, there are some worrying trends in the millennial generation who are often characterised by chronically low self esteem, (facilitated he claims, by failed parenting strategies among other things) who now look to Facebook and Instagram approval to fix their lack of self-worth rather than human interaction and who are exhibiting behaviours that are profoundly addictive in nature.
It’s a bleak view of the future, often described as dystopian but for Neil Postman, there is an interesting distinction between the dystopian visions of Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ The former portrayed a bleak vision of oppressive state control in the form of Big Brother which sought to actively ban expression and limit human agency, however in ‘Brave New World’ there is a far more horrifying phenomenon at work:
In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
Technology has afforded us some incredible opportunities for education, such as comparative judgement or the JSTOR Shakespeare digital library and there are some good examples of purposeful, well structured environments but increasingly, we are suffering from what Sartre called ‘the agony of choice’ as we become more and more connected the the Internet of Things. Allowing kids to browse the Internet in a lesson and then expecting they will work productively is like bringing them to McDonald’s and hoping they’ll order the salad.
Techno-evangelists have sold us the Internet as a form of emancipation, freeing us from the ‘factory model’ of education (despite the fact the evidence for this is thin) but often technology in education seems to represent a solution in search of a problem that actually gets in the way of learning. Perhaps the most liberating and empowering thing we can do for young people today is to create a space for them where they can read the great works of human thought undisturbed and without distraction, for at least a short while.
I have written a chapter for a new book coming out this winter on Dialogic teaching and technology.
The concomitant shift in terms of the traditional teacher within the new technological age then is one of ‘arbiter of knowledge’ to ‘facilitator of learning.’ This seismic shift in pedagogical dynamic has not divided teachers along the lines of age, but rather along the lines of technical proficiency and ambition with many older teachers showing the kind of patience and ambition required to master new technological literacies. The current trend is certainly one which ‘valorizes the virtual‘ but this has often has the effect of polarizing discourse on technology and creating a reductive ‘either/or’ mindset among many English teachers.
David James (@EducationFest) and I talking about Google Apps at BETT 2013.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:
– William Wordsworth
“That’s F’ing Gay as hell.”
Earlier this year I was teaching ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth and when I came to the line “A poet could not but be gay,” I put the book down, looked at the class and waited for the inevitable giggling to ensue.
In a Bakhtinian sense of course these pupils were not engaging in an act of sedition so much as responding to a socio-cultural signifier in the form of the word ‘gay’ which has been radically transformed since Wordsworth employed the word. For Cartman and many kids today the word ‘gay’ has a negative connotation, for many (idiots) the word represents a moral transgression yet for many others it is a proud badge of identity. Where then does the ‘meaning’ of this word lie? All this got me thinking about how the notion of a monologic definition of a word is fast becoming obselete and that at a time when student literacy is reportedly worse than ever we surely need a better framework for students to access meaning than the dictionary.
For Bakhtin, the ‘word’ is not where the locus of meaning resides. Words are imbued with meaning depending on the speaker, the tone used or the prior relationship between the speakers. The determining factor is the context around which the word or utterance is created which is why I have such a problem with giving students dictionary definitions of words. If they do not have the frames of reference with which to comprehend them, then what use are they?
Bakhtin writes that
When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p.87)
Another example of this is when I heard one of my students utter the phrase “uhhhh, that’s peak!!” Although I understood the word ‘peak’ in terms of its dictionary definition I had no clue what the hell she was talking about and thus had a lessened understanding of my students. I was captivated by the possible alternative meaning of ‘peak’ and asked them to explain it to me. It was subsequently explained to me as meaning ‘severe’ or ‘harsh.’
Every time I hear students use language in this way I always make a point of asking them to teach me their meaning of the word and the right context in which to use it. I have actually spent whole lunchtimes in my classroom being ‘taught’ by my students alternative meanings to words such as ‘soggy’ and ‘moist.’ This particular process proved very confusing for me and required multiple explanations of the word in different contexts. The nearest approximation I could find for the word ‘moist’ was pathetic. (For some reason negativity is equated with dampness.)
Instances like this really made me reflect on how difficult it must be for students to construct meaning with a limited vocabulary, who are not exposed themselves to an expansive vocabulary or who have come from another country. Add to that the fact that words are in an increasingly rapid state of flux depending on their temporal and spatial parameters and also the limitless contingency of the internet of you really have to look at the validity of dictionaries today in the English classroom. Bakhtin writes:
“In any given historical moment of verbal-ideological life, each generation at social level has its own language; moreover, every agehas as a matter of fact its own language, its own vocabulary, its own particular accentual system that, in their turn, vary depending on social level, academic institution…and other stratifying factors.” Bakhtin (1981d, p.290)
So last week I tried an experiment with a year 10 class. (14 year olds) I thought instead of using the monologic exchange of dictionaries to ‘expand’ their vocabulary. I would try and create a broader contextual framework for students to construct meaning and more importantly to get them into the habit of teaching themselves and ‘owning’ the word.
I gave them a chapter from Jonathan Franzen’s new book that I hoped would not only give them access to new words but also stimulate their thinking. One word that came up for a student was ‘resonance.’ The said student asked me what it meant and I resisted the urge to tell her and asked her to use the internet as an experiment to see if she could determine the meaning herself. She of course then went to Dictionary.com and go the following definition:
Resonance: The quality or condition of being resonant.
Brilliant. She now didn’t know two words. Why define a word for someone who doesn’t know the word with a variant of the same word they don’t know?? So I asked her to not focus on the word but focus on words around the word and try to create meaning by using a combination of different Google searches such as ‘That idea resonates with me.’ or ‘The book had a real resonance…’ etc. And I also asked her to be persistant and to do at least 10 searches and try to build up a ‘gradual meaning’ of the word instead of the solitary and (for her) confrontational dictionary definition of it.
The results were amazing. Within a few minutes she had not only completely understood the word through seeing in a dialogic exchange with texts she could relate to, but could now apply it in her own vocabulary and had learned it in a way that had far more consolidation than the monologic exchange a dictionary provides. More importantly, she also felt better about herself.
Ot of this experience, I decided I would create a series of lesson starters aimed at improving students vocabulary called ‘Dialogic Dictionary’ where instead of giving students dictionary definitions of words, I would instead subvert that process and give then 10 instances of the word in context and then leave a blank space at the end where they then have to write a standard dictionary definition in their own words, and then a final task where they write a sentence using the word incorporating an instance in their own life where the new word applies. Anyone interested in this, or (in the spirit of Bakhtin’s dialogic principle) anyone with ideas to improve this please email me.
The danger of course is that ultimately you will end up like this.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.