Sunday, November 25, 2012

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The saddest movie death scene? Possibly.

"In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That's the essence of Kubrick's dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." So says Nicholas Carr within his Atlantic article, and it is hard to disagree with much that he says. In fact, his own experiences (along with those of his friends mentioned in the article) regarding deep reading reflect my own troubles. As an English major who actually enjoys reading, it has become increasingly difficult to just sit down and focus; my mind is always somewhere else, and it takes a lot more effort than should be required to get me back in the right frame of mind. Much of this can be blamed on the Internet's suspect code of ethics: through various avenues, specifically "content" on top of more content, it is in their (insert company here) "economic interest to drive us to distraction." More page views equal more dollars.

Within the article, Carr cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University. She makes two excellent points: that "deep reading... is indistinguishable from deep thinking," and that "the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts 'efficiency' and 'immediacy' above all else, may be weakening our capacity" for deep reading / deep thinking. This is troubling, especially its implications on schools. Is the answer to disregard any sort of deep reading activities? Hopefully not. How any English class will survive if that is the option is beyond me. Literacy is still just as important as ever, yet it doesn't mean that one needs to be able to read, but that one needs to read well, i.e. comprehend and analyze a given piece. In my class, we have begun to read A Christmas Carol. My mentor teacher has the kids read in-class, but with an audio version playing along, and she will occasionally stop the recording to ask the students various questions. This provides students with short bursts of reading, along with informal assessments to see if they are following along and comprehending the material. The downside to this, however, is that if this were utilized with every reading, it would not only become stale, but it would slow down the reading process considerably. It allows everyone to read at the same pace, but gifted students may not feel properly challenged.

One thing that isn't mentioned in the article, however, is something else entirely: that our intelligence is declining as we evolve. In a recent study, Stanford researcher Gerald Crabtree posits that "evolution is, in fact, making us dumber — and that human intelligence may have actually peaked before our hunter-gatherer predecessors left Africa." However, Crabtree adds that "no matter how deteriorated our intellectual abilities may have become over the millennia, advancements in technology will someday render these changes insignificant." Enter Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's founders who believe that "if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off." It's terrifying to think how prescient Kubrick was with 2001.
evolution is, in fact, making us dumber — and that human intelligence may have actually peaked before our hunter-gatherer predecessors left Africa

Read more:
evolution is, in fact, making us dumber — and that human intelligence may have actually peaked before our hunter-gatherer predecessors left Africa

Read more:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reflecting on Prensky

Out of all of the essays and articles we have read in this class, it seems like Marc Prensky gets it the most. "Passion is the students' true motivator. Once a student has a passion to know or do something - anything - the chances are excellent that he or she will do much, on their own, to follow it." As great as technology is and can be, it's useless without people who are operating it with no direction or dedication. Most students have the tools necessary, but self-motivation is critical. 

However, it is equally important that teachers teach these students how to use basic technology. As Prensky mentions in Teaching the Right Stuff, "even where the things are going the best, where the new tools are being fully utilized by all students... the students are already behind the technological curve. Because we are not teaching our students the tools of tomorrow." This past week, a class of my students did a pre-assessment activity by going to the computer lab and working on a webquest related to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. The complete lack of any technological literacy was dispiriting, to say the least. The entire class of 7th graders had no idea how to double space a document in Word. The concept of tabbed browsing went right over their heads. When I told them that they could email the document to themselves or post it into their backpack on EdModo, they were clueless. This is basic technological know-how, yet whatever it is they are learning in their Computer Literacy class is obviously insufficient. And these are the things that Prensky wants us to move away from, in favor of video, virtual communities, and programming, three things that require a strong computer-literate foundation.

If there is one thing I disagree with, it's Prensky's assertion that being able to write a good letter, report, or essay is worthless for today's job seekers. I find it hard to believe that essays and reports are going away, and arguing that "at the most I would write blog posts, or perhaps articles" seems to be more of an issue of semantics. Good writing leads to good thinking, and being able to incorporate all forms of writing, and not just shorter text mediums like blog posts or emails, would be best for student development.   

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Khan Academy: How Good Is It?

While I definitely find Khan Academy to be a useful supplement, I have several issues with the program itself. First, there is nothing of value for English teachers. There are numerous subjects within the domain of English Language Arts that could be elaborated on in a ten- or fifteen-minute video, yet the subject itself has yet to be explored by Khan. The only way an English teacher could potentially utilize the site would be through one of the history or science videos, specifically if the text that an ELA class is studying involves said video. But why do that when there are tons of other great resources available both online and off?

This brings up another issue: the history section is lacking. There are few videos and worksheets, and this may be an issue that Khan may have an issue addressing. Whereas the math and science videos are capable of solving and explaining problems and concepts within a small window, history can be so comprehensive that it cannot be properly covered in a six-minute video (especially the video on Lincoln's assassination above). 

Khan's bread and butter is his math and science section videos, and he should be commended for his intentions, yet his arrogance towards those who correct him (see this article) is appalling. One of the goals of all teachers is self-assessment, and Khan seems to lack this. For a guy (with no education background) who is admittedly winging it with each video to proceed and denounce those who challenge the veracity of his "lessons" is more than off-putting. The goal isn't merely to have student's learn at home but to have them learn correctly.

I'm all for changing the status quo in education, and I like some ideals of Khan Academy and the flipped classroom in general, yet it can only go so far. It is up to teachers and parents to motivate and excite our kids; furthermore, kids need to be willing to work and accept some responsibility for their own learning. Students also need to be able to decompress from learning, so having them watch a series of videos at home is not going to do much if they don't have the motivation or time to do so.