A modest proposal

By Jeremy Wilson on June 27th, 2012

As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.
— Abraham Lincoln

Following Michael Gove’s recently leaked plans, it seems likely that education will become the defining topic of political discourse leading up to the next election. (Let us at any rate hope so; otherwise we will be left with reform of the House of Lords.) Regardless of the differing solutions offered, the public mood is in favour of substantial change to a broken system.

Changes to exams and the structure of the national curriculum will dominate the debate. Rightly so. But there is an important topic in danger of being overlooked: how to teach a generation who are plugged into an online world.

Most often any conversation around the subject veers towards the potential of educational software, not how to deal with the reality of a deeply connected online lifestyle. Comments that do appear are usually dripping in suspicion-imbued anxiety, failing to deal with the realities that schools face.

The contents of a speech made this month by Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust were circulated in advance to the press. Fraser accuses the internet of infantilising learning and embodies much of the prevailing short-sightedness among teaching professionals in this area. A veritable smorgasbord of naïveté, the speech provides a useful framework with which to explore education in the internet age.

I do worry that the ease of access to nuggets of information means that our appetites are becoming infantilised … We’re so used to fast facts that we’re in danger of losing sight of the truth that some learning is more of a slow casserole, with knowledge stewing in our minds to form a richer, deeper flavour.

How do we give learning a deeper “flavour”? Well, let’s first ask: how do we learn? If learning is, broadly, the acquisition of knowledge, then perhaps a deeper, more erudite sort of learning is the process of critically connecting our points of knowledge and through inquiry and reason cultivating our own ideas. In other words, it is the art of thinking.

The internet does not dilute this process: it accelerates it. Never before have our brains been assaulted by so much knowledge and never has there been so much opportunity for our minds to process new knowledge in new ways.

“Fast facts” should not be mistaken for fast food. Learning was once a “slow casserole” because there was no other choice; the supercharged amassing of knowledge simply increases the opportunity for us to think, as serendipity bats the knowledge around our brains.

It may be argued that the internet is changing our appetites, as we take the opportunity to chase new stimuli. But in the case of learning, it is evident that the internet is simply feeding existing appetites for ever-greater reservoirs of knowledge.

We want to learn, and the internet facilitates that desire in ways never before possible. Ms Fraser may be right that the ease of access to information is allowing us to greedily consume “nuggets” of information, but the case for this gluttony being the cause of intellectual decline is grossly overstated.

“Nuggets” as an idiosyncratic construct of the internet is a fair critical assessment of the way information has become increasingly packaged. Being succinct is a hallmark of online communication and being selective is a hallmark of online consumption. In the context of trying to gain deep understanding of something specific, this kind of consumption isn’t ideal.

But in the pursuit of a rounded and versatile intellect, the bite-sizing of information is helpful. Instead of dumbing down learning, on-demand access to a vast quantity of information that can be cherry-picked at will lessens the importance of knowing facts while increasing the opportunity for developing intellectual dexterity.

In a BBC article that reported on Ms Fraser’s concerns, she pronounced her concern about the way quick-fix answers from internet search engines can leave children with a lack of awareness of different views and a one-dimensional view of topics.

Research shouldn’t just mean ‘look it up on Google’ … So I’m a firm believer in the importance for our students of switching off the computer, the radio, the smartphone, the TV, and any other distractions, and reading a whole book – I would say from cover to cover.

It is erroneous to paint the internet as a one-dimensional purveyor of facts; a computer requires engagement. Furthermore, access to an omniscient athenaeum has turned searching into an art form: the foraging process has become more than a means to an end. It encourages discovery and the pursuit of information for its own sake.

In common, I am sure, with most people who grew up with the internet, I have visited most of the major cities on earth and explored philosophy, economics and politics online. I have discovered authors, artists, musicians and a hundred other cultural and academic wonders on my travels along the hyperlinked breadcrumb trail. In the process, I have developed ideas, principles and passions which now characterise my life.

And yet Ms Fraser says:

I want to bring back thinking – and I think a lot of what happens on the internet is antipathetic to thinking and suggests there is no alternative view … Learning should be about engaging with ideas, rather than ‘regurgitating facts’ … Reaching for the search engine is not the best way of finding the value of competing and sometimes contradictory perspectives … Schools need to create the space for children to think creatively around a subject.

Two-year-olds are playing with their mothers’ iPhones. It’s a generation which looks to screens for stimulation. 

Books are antipathetic to thinking and do not suggest alternative viewpoints, if your reading list is Mein Kampf and The Little Red Book. The internet is built to provide unbiased access to diverging views. It doesn’t tell you what to think, it empowers you to discover answers. Critical thinking is dependent on having access to assertions which can be questioned and the online world caters for this process abundantly.

If this is starting to read like a rose-tinted view of the online experience, antithetical to some of your own experiences, I suggest it is because you are old. The key to understanding how the web can be leveraged to enhance the mind’s abilities, is to see it through eyes that have never known anything else.

Young brains adapt. Concentrating on a single written document from start to finish is the demand of a social construct. While there is value in holding onto that construct, fetishising the ability to focus on a single thing over time as a superior skill is naïve. For those destined to live in a digital world, distributing attention will be a way of life.

For me the internet has already become a cognitive prosthesis: it augments my memory and serves as the reference from which I construct my intellectual experience.

My creative process for writing this article consisted of reacquainting myself with previous ideas I had found online, seeing how any ideas I was formulating matched up with the thoughts of others, following up new thoughts and allowing them to simmer. The internet has become part of my thinking process and I suspect this will become even more the case for those younger than me.

Whether we like it or not, a central tenet of growing up is going to be the navigation of the online information repository. So it is with no small amount of fanfare that I am proposing a modest plan to reconcile education with the online world.

The ever increasing consumption of attention by the online world is a certainty. The accessibility of of knowledge is exciting and helps to level the educational playing field. The dangers of not knowing how to allocate credibility and attention span to online media are real, yet surmountable.

While I have taken some effort to play down the possible effect of information overload on young minds, I concede that a greater understanding of changing information gathering habits is needed. Being made aware of the intellectual journey their brains are taking is enough to make them mindful of their own activity.

To survive in the online world pupils must also be taught how to asses credibility. As Hemingway put it: “Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.”

Certain behaviours need to become mechanised when dealing with online material. Teaching to check dates, authors, publishers, reputability and to separate fact from opinion would go a long way to avoiding the worst of the internet’s delusions.

Most importantly kids simply need to be taught the basic principles of evaluating information: form an opinion based on what you have read, seek material that contradicts or challenges that opinion, re-evaluate the opinion.

Crisis averted?