The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Boskone: Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?


Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration? Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon

Gannon opens with the observation that the internet has increased the speed at which debate and negotiation can move forward. A query or proposition can be researched to a shallow extent very quickly and responded to in minutes or seconds. This is now the speed of business. It is like a cold war if information speed… if you can’t respond faster than the competition you may lose the deal. So this is driving shallowly researched dialogue.

Kelly comments on information hopping and how distracting it is to look up something and then get fascinated by a whole trail of information and find himself hours later reading about something totally different.

Graykin says the internet has greatly improved her research, reduced her patience, and reduced her reflection. She finds herself wanting things instantly, even not on the internet.

Pournelle opens with a sociopolitical tack, quoting someone that a sufficient condition for the end of a totalitarian state is the fere exchange of information within it. Proposes a gameshow of sorts for Iran called “Name That Prophet” in which all the winners and everyone else wins ipads that can’t be blocked (say via satellite link). Then liberate the minds of the people using them as a “cultural weapon of mass destruction”. (No public comment, but as Gannon said in a later session, “silence is not consent”.)

Gannon changes the direction and cites a Pew study in which 73% of people thought that the internet will make us smarter, with enhanced intelligence over time. Murphy responds that he doesn’t think that it’s making anyone smarter, but it is increasing access to the tools necessary to do so. Pournelle points out that the internet allows access to information from anywhere, so that smart people even in the middle of nowhere can now access knowledge, and further that the internet will “make the smart people smarter.”

Gannon says that technology is like a lens, amplifying whatever trends are already there. Draws analogy to a supermarket. If everyone had unlimited access to a supermarket, you wouldn’t get a population that was healthier. People already disposed to eating healthy might be eating the healthy food, but you’ll find most Americans in a pre-diabetic coma in the Twinkie aisle. As a professor he observes that the depth of analysis and thinking of his students has gone down over time, but the number of ideas and threads that they can hold in parallel and combine at once is higher.

Graykin notes that IQ tests can be biased and only really measure the ability to take an IQ test. Gannon seems to agree by making a comment about how it definitely depends on what we claim intelligence is.

Pournelle speaks disdainfully of political correctness and goes off on a rant about how IQ tests are the best single measure of human potential ever invented. This rant last several minutes. (Again, I don’t really think I need to comment here.)

Murphy tries to bring the panel back to less polemical topics by trying to segue into the marshmallow test (kids who could resist instant gratification ended up doing better later on), and trying to connect that to how the neuroplasticity of our brains is possibly changing our response to stimuli.

Pournelle responds with another rant about how there is no credible evidence for Head Start.

Kelly steps in as moderator and diverts the conversation to depth of thought and distraction, which Gannon is quick to back him up on with a brief discussion of ADD/ADHD and a balanced summary of its increased prevalence in society. Graykin tries to join in by remarking that flipping focus is physiologically stressful and these hormones can have negative effects.

Gannon recommends two books for further reading, The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus,

Opened up for audience questions. I ask Graykin (since I had heard the least from her) what observations she can lend to a science teacher. She lit up and responded with great advice. Firstly, to ignore quasi-intellectuals and polemicals and get to the real science, which is moving faster than any textbook can be. Passing on facts in the age of the internet is redundant, but the need for the mental skills necessary to filter, process, analyze, and synthesize that information is more in need than ever before. (Note: See What is 21st Century Education? for related thoughts.)

Questions I didn’t get to ask: What is the role of the digital divide in this? If the internet is truly changing our brains, then does that mean that those who do not have access (or choose not to have access) are not changing, and what are the social consequences for this phenomenon?  Also, what about the homogenizing effect resulting from the fact that a single cultural hegemony controls a disproportionate level of the discourse and media on the internet?

Is intelligence something you have, or something you get?

It’s only two days into orientation, and we don’t even start formal classes until next Monday. But already there has been much in BTR to challenge me and prompt reflection.

In the first place, the cohort is incredibly diverse, not just in ethnic background and gender but also in content area, family social class, politics, perspectives, and preferred approach to intellectual discussion. The very fact of such a broad cross-section of people in the same room, all educated and passionate, is bound to create a sense of hugeness to this endeavor. We also realize that, in order to effectively address our common purpose, we must face head-on a disturbingly large number of interconnected issues together, all of which even individually are normally “third rail” topics in polite and professional conversation. The resulting mix is as charged as a thunderstorm, yet affirming and heady at the same time.

My favorite discussion so far has been a small-group breakout session on Resnik and Hall’s “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education”. In it, the two authors explore the social and cultural forces that shape how we Americans often harbor misconceptions about the nature of aptitude, effort, and intelligence. They attempt to create a new working definition for “intelligence” based on cognitive and social science research. I won’t summarize the whole nuanced article here, but rather focus on a specific facet:

The core problem is that our strong belief in the importance of intelligence and aptitude leads to a devaluing of effort.

Most of the discussion focused on the the negative side of this (i.e. that low expectations of students can drive a self-fulfilling cycle of low-performance), and I think deservedly so since this is a central impediment to learning in urban schools. However, in reflecting later, I wondered if unreasonable positive expectations might be detrimental in their own way too.

An example, using “positive” ethnic stereotypes. I remember a Filipino friend of mine telling me that growing up, she was afraid of being seen as “the dumb Asian”, and therefore was afraid of doing anything that might reveal incompetence or lack of knowledge. In other words, the superficially positive perception that Asians (both east and south) somehow have a natural aptitude for learning and “just get it” or are “just smart” can make them feel socially pressured to appear as if they understand and don’t need to put in a high amount of effort to do so. Outwardly, they may have become good at “faking it”, latching onto key phrases and repackaging them for their peers and teachers, but inwardly they may really want to ask a question or admit they don’t understand the why and the how. Or, they may decline to use study hours to indicate that they are above all that, but make things harder for themselves later when they have to rush in privacy. Thus, a great amount of material is memorized and repackaged (great for standardized test scores and even grades in many classrooms), but little in the way of actual thinking and learning have taken place.

In any of these cases, the student’s learning is still compromised by a devaluing of effort brought on by perceptions of intelligence and aptitude, even though the perception is, on the surface, a positive one.

Anyway, soooo many more thoughts on this and other subjects, but alas, many other items on the to-do list at the moment. Summary: I love this program, and can’t wait for Day 3 tomorrow (we got the day off for the holiday).

Next on the list: beer and socializing with my new cohort! Very important.

Happy Independence Day everyone! Toward a more perfect union…