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Education, Books and the Digital Age

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010


In one of those “Socrates lamenting how the young folk can’t memorize and recite worth a damn because of all the time they waste reading!” moments, The New York Times hosted a debate of cultural significance. The authors are all thoughtful and reasonable in their contentions:

Do School Libraries Need Books?

Keeping traditional school libraries up to date is costly, with the constant need to acquire new books and to find space to store them. Yet for all that trouble, students roam the stacks less and less because they find it so much more efficient to work online. One school, Cushing Academy, made news last fall when it announced that it would give away most of its 20,000 books and transform its library into a digital center.

Do schools need to maintain traditional libraries? What are the educational consequences of having students read less on the printed page and more on the Web?

I spend a copious amount of time reading online with a PC, Blackberry, netbook and a Kindle but there’s something sad and sterile about the concept of a library without books. It is like calling a room with an iPod plugged into a Bose a “concert hall”.

This isn’t an antiquarian reaction. I am enthusiastic about the potential and the evolving reality of Web 2.0 as a powerful tool for learning, to set “minds on fire“, to facilitate mass collaboration in open-source  communities of practice, to lower costs and increase access to the highest quality educational experiences available and to drastically re-engineer public education. I am all for investing in “digital centers” for the “digital natives” – hell, all students should be carrying netbooks as a standard school supply! The capacity to skillfully navigate, evaluate and manipulate online information is not an esoteric accomplishment but an everyday skill for a globalized economy. Going online ought to be a normal part of a child’s school day, not a once a month or semester event.

I am also sympathetic to the economic questions facing school librarians – and not merely of cost, but of physical space. School library budgets are shrinking or nonexistent even as digital data compression and processing power follows Moore’s Law. Digital investment, especially when most vendors that specialize in k-12 educational markets feature egregiously oligopolistic, rip-off, prices, gives librarians an orders of magnitude larger “bang for the buck”.

But abandoning books entirely is not the way to go. Cognitively, reading online is likely not the same at the neuronal level as reading from a book. For literate adults, that may not matter as much as for children who are still in the complicated process of learning how to read. The key variable here may be visual attention moreso than particular cognitive subsets of reading skills, but we don’t actually know. Science cannot yet explain the wide developmental and methodological preference variation  among students who learn or fail to learn how to read using the ancient dead tree format. To quote neuroscientist, Dr. Maryanne Wolf:

….No one really knows the ultimate effects of an immersion in a digital medium on the young developing brain. We do know a great deal, however, about the formation of what we know as the expert reading brain that most of us possess to this point in history.

In brief, this brain learns to access and integrate within 300 milliseconds a vast array of visual, semantic, sound (or phonological), and conceptual processes, which allows us to decode and begin to comprehend a word. At that point, for most of us our circuit is automatic enough to allocate an additional precious 100 to 200 milliseconds to an even more sophisticated set of comprehension processes that allow us to connect the decoded words to inference, analogical reasoning, critical analysis, contextual knowledge, and finally, the apex of reading: our own thoughts that go beyond the text.

This is what Proust called the heart of reading – when we go beyond the author’s wisdom and enter the beginning of our own.

I have no doubt that the new mediums will accomplish many of the goals we have for the reading brain, particularly the motivation to learn to decode, read and experience the knowledge that is available. As a cognitive neuroscientist, however, I believe we need rigorous research about whether the reading circuit of our youngest members will be short-circuited, figuratively and physiologically.

For my greatest concern is that the young brain will never have the time (in milliseconds or in hours or in years) to learn to go deeper into the text after the first decoding, but rather will be pulled by the medium to ever more distracting information, sidebars, and now,perhaps, videos (in the new vooks).

The child’s imagination and children’s nascent sense of probity and introspection are no match for a medium that creates a sense of urgency to get to the next piece of stimulating information. The attention span of children may be one of the main reasons why an immersion in on-screen reading is so engaging, and it may also be why digital reading may ultimately prove antithetical to the long-in-development, reflective nature of the expert reading brain as we know it.

I could make a cultural argument about the tactile pleasure of book reading. Or the intrinsic role of books as the cornerstone of cultivating a “life of the mind” . Or that book-bound literacy is a two thousand year old element of Western civilization that is worth preserving for its own sake – which it is. However, such cultural arguments are not politically persuasive, because if you understand them already then they do not need to be made. And if you do not understand them from firsthand experience, then you cannot grasp the argument’s merit from a pious secondhand lecture.

Which leaves us with an appeal to utilitarianism; bookless schools might result in students who read poorly, which wastes money, time, opportunities and talent. Online mediums should be a regular part of a student’s diet of literacy but without books as a component of reading, a digital environment may not make for a literate people.

The US Army goes Crossfit and America’s Changing Social Mores

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

This sounds very much like Crossfit:

New soldiers are grunting through the kind of stretches and twists found in “ab blaster” classes at suburban gyms as the Army revamps its basic training regimen for the first time in three decades.

Heeding the advice of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, commanders are dropping five-mile runs and bayonet drills in favor of zigzag sprints and exercises that hone core muscles. Battlefield sergeants say that’s the kind of fitness needed to dodge across alleys, walk patrol with heavy packs and body armor or haul a buddy out of a burning vehicle.

And this is hilarious – and largely true in my observation, at least for most LMC -UMC suburban teen-agers who become Army recruits:

Trainers also want to toughen recruits who are often more familiar with Facebook than fistfights.

….But they need to learn how to fight.

“Most of these soldiers have never been in a fistfight or any kind of a physical confrontation. They are stunned when they get smacked in the face,” said Capt. Scott Sewell, overseeing almost 190 trainees in their third week of training. “We are trying to get them to act, to think like warriors.”

Godspeed to you, Captain Sewell. And a hat tip to Dave Dilegge

The culture has changed. School anti-bullying programs have eliminated a lot of the physical aspects of student conflicts but had the unanticipated effect of making the nonphysical but verbal and social bullying far worse because organized ostracism, slander and anonymous internet harrassment are far harder for school authorities to prove in court when challenged by the always litigious parents of the chronic bullies who have (finally) been disciplined.

Consequently, most suburban kids a) feel quite safe in saying unbelievably heinous things to each other that a generation ago, and certainly two generations earlier, would have resulted in an instant punch in the mouth, if not a savage public beating; and b) are completely inept at defending themselves when they come across someone outside their narrow, whitebread, cultural zone who takes offense at their wanton disrespect and reacts with an “old school” response. They are the Emo generation.

Coupled with a widespread loathing of physical exercise and an expectation of gratuitous consumer-debt financed luxury, a sizable segment of young Americans are better prepared for conflict in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles than joining the Army. Or even a moderately resilient soccer team.

Thus concludes my cranky, old man, rant. 🙂

American Public Schools and History

Friday, September 4th, 2009

My amigo and blogging colleague Lexington Green had an excellent post this week on the anniversary of the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, abetted by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, which set off WWII in Europe. Lex laments the state of historical knowlege in public schools and asks readers for their recommendations for books on the Second world War. As of this writing, there are already 47 comments:

September 1, 1939

World War II started (in Europe) 70 years ago today.

There are two sorts of people in the USA today. A tiny minority who are very interested in military history and know a lot about World War II, and a vast majority who can barely even tell you who was in it (“was that the one with Hitler?”), when it occurred (“the Seventies?”), or what it was about, or even who won (“Japan?”). American children whom I talk to are apparently taught two things and two things only about our participation in World War II: (1) The Japanese Americans were imprisoned, and that was racist and wrong, and (2) we dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and that was racist and wrong. Some know about the Holocaust. College age youth are taught that the war was an exercise in American imperialism, meant to spread expoitative capitalism across the world, and that it is a myth that the GIs went to Europe to liberate the conquered countries or to bring democracy and freedom. Even depictions that are not entirely negative, such as Saving Private Ryan, depict the war solely as a personal tragedy and pointless death and destruction, and not about anything, and certainly not about anything good or admirable. Fed exclusively on this diet for over a generation, we now have a population that sees the war in this way.

This is precisely what Pres. Reagan warned us about:

We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom-freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs [protection]. So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important-why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.

Reagan was right. I have gone beyond being distressed about all this to being fatalistically resigned. With historical memory either non-existent or actively corrupted, those of us who care about these things will have to preserve the record as best we can.

At The Corner (updated here) they are asking people to list their favorite books on World War II. This is a good idea, and I solicit your suggestions in the comments. The Boyz readership always suggests something I have not heard of already. Please list two or three favorites, in the comments. I could spend all day doing this, but I will abide by my own rule, and limit myself to three.

Read the rest here:

You should read the rest, as well as the comments, many of which are informative and a few of which qualify as entertaining. While I am very tempted to discuss books and historiography, I will instead address the teaching of history in our public schools.

The ideological Marxoid craziness of which Lex writes does indeed exist, though it is far more common in university courses than in secondary school classrooms ( Oak Park, though, is a pretty liberal UMC burg) and more common in urban school districts on the coasts than in the Midwest or South. In particular, I have seen firsthand at national conferences, teacher-zealots from California who appear to have been kicked out of Trotskyite Collectives for excessive radicalism and who are more like the mentally unsound homeless than someone entrusted with the education of children. They are largely scary exceptions though. The main problem with the teaching of history in our public schools is that as far as subjects go, history is a tertiary concern of government officials, administrators and school boards; as a result, most of history instructors are hard working and well-meaning people who are by education, totally unqualified for the positions they hold.

This is not to say that these history teachers do not have college degrees, They do, usually they are education or English lit majors with a scattering of PE and business majors whose main career concern is becoming varsity football or basketball coach. A few were punitively reassigned to history departments out of fields they are highly qualified to teach because they are good teachers and administrators saw them as capable of filling a gap in the master schedule, credentials be damned.

Nor would I say that these teachers do not care about children or shirk their responsibilities. By and large they are professionals who are dedicated to and care about the welfare of their students. The problem is that they don’t know much history – and it is very difficult to teach something well that you yourself do not even know enough about to be aware of the parameters of your own ignorance.

In 1997, education scholar Diane Ravitch wrote:

…Of those teachers who describe themselves as social studies teachers, that is, those who teach social studies in middle school or secondary school, only 18.5% have either a major or a minor in history. That is, 81.5% of social studies teachers did not study history in college either as a major or as a minor. In case you thinkyou didn’t hear me correctly, let me say it again: 81.5% of social studies teachers did not study history in college either as a major or a minor. This figure helps to explain why history is no longer the center of the social studies, since so few social studies teachers have ever studied history

What? “Well that was twelve years ago!” you say? My friend, the vast majority of that 81 % of unqualified teachers are still teaching today. And most of that remainder are still as unqualified now as they were in 1997. Imagine the state of our buildings and bridges if 81% of the professors of engineering had majored in, say Art Criticism or Women’s Studies.

Aggravating matters, even if a prospective teacher did major in history in college, fewer of their professors were full-time history instructors than ever before, meaning that even the quality of the small minority of teachers who are history majors is going into decline! NCLB scorns history as a subject, so school districts across the nation will continue to starve it. Poorer districts will fire all the social studies teachers in coming years and parcel out the history sections to unwilling English teachers in order to save the jobs that will preserve reading scores (assuming those are making AYP in the first place). After that, the science teachers will start to get the axe.

Students know a few bare minimum things about WWII, what can be gleaned from dumbed-down, turgidly written, textbooks that are long on glossy pictures and short on engaging prose, plus what they might catch on the History Channel which is seldom short of Nazi-related documentaries. It is unsurprising that most high school students are ignorant of their own nation’s history – given the state state of the field, it would actually be surprising if they knew anything at all.

We are deliberately cultivating a level of societal ignorance that is a deadly longitudinal threat to the continuance of democratic governance and individual liberties in this country. Maybe that was always part of the plan.

The Virtue of Recess

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Recess is a historical staple of elementary education in America and it is still not uncommon to see children granted small amounts of time for “free play” or educational games in the primary grades. Unfortunately, this practice is under fire in recent years. Some critics of public education or politicians would prefer to see that time devoted to increased amounts of formal, skill-drill exercises; but aside from the fact that test-prep activities quickly hit the point of

diminishing returns in terms raising a school district’s aggregate mean test scores ( a little is good, a lot is not) the so-called ” wasted free time”, is actually neurologically vital for the optimum cognitive development of children’s brains. It’s good for us older folks too but that’s a topic for another day.

A report from the excellent Eide Neurolearning Blog:

Remembering to Play

“Several recent articles remind us of the importance of play. From NPR, Old-fashioned play builds serious skills, and NYT, Taking Play Seriously.Also from the American Academy of Pediatrics (The Importance of Play for Health Child Development pdf : “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to health brain development…Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, an to learn self-advocacy skills.” An increased in hurried lifestyles and school-based academic performance may leave a child with little unstructured time. In one survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 30% of kindergarten classes no longer had recess periods

….An additional point made in the NYT article, was the importance of play for the development of the cerebellum. For kids with sensory processing disorders, this is a big one. Sometimes the earliest indication that something isn’t “quite right” is when a child avoids the normal rough-and-tumble play on the playground. That’s why without intervention, a child may accumulate even fewer play experiences and fall even farther behind their classmates with time.”

Read the rest and find additional brain-learning resources here.

While older students do not have “recess”, time for creative, exploratory and imaginative learning activities should be a regular aspect of core academic classses.  The chance to “play” with concepts, solve puzzling scenarios, smash ideas up in a synthesis, articulate  new or unorthodox  solutions to old problems is a teaching strategy for students to arrive at a deeper understanding of the subject at hand. It trains them to create and evaluate analogies, test the logical soundness of each other’s ideas, debate and experiment. Less structured but goal-directed time is a valuable investment as independent thinking cannot be cultivated in a classroom where every moment is direct instruction and rigidly scripted. At some point, the training wheels have to come off if we are to discover which students can ride on their own and which ones need additional guided practice.

Furthermore, in relation to “play”, music, the arts, sports and drama play a critical role in brain growth and do not represent “frills” but a central modality for integration of concepts, application of learning and generation of insight. As subjects, they are the brain’s “Right” side exercises to the ” Left” side’s analytical-logical reasoning provided by mathematics instruction and science classes.

As a society, we have gone berserk on overscheduling children into formal activities, academic as well as extracurricular, to the point where some elementary age kids show signs of anxiety, burn-out and depession or have time with their families that is not devoted to some kind of structured, formal, event. I find that many students lack any real cognitive independence, normal childhood creativity or the ability to negotiate social interactions with peers without hands-on, adult, supervision. A kind of well-meaning, suburban, shelteredness that produces a vaguely “institutional” passivity in many children.

Our students need both structured learning as well as some degree of “space” or “freedom” in order to maximize their intellectual and emotional growth, not either-or.

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007


Dr.Von took the time from his busy schedule to send me a comment on my post on WISE AND STUPID CROWDS, CREATIVITY AND THE IC:

“I tend to believe that many are falling into the usual trappings we humans are prone to do. The concept of ‘Groupthink’ has its positive features, but I fear it does hamper creativity. It often takes revolutionary thinkers, who are largely isolated from the establisment, to go against mainstream beliefs to get at deeper truth and innovation in thought. It was to Einstein’s advantage that he was isolated from the bias of academia at the turn of the last century, so he could reach the conclusion that Newtonian physics had limits and the world worked in very different ways than what the ‘Group’ thought. We will always need that individual freedom working in parallel with the Group. Creativity and innovation can come from either branch, so we cannot fall into a phase of ‘all group, all the time,’ as some might be suggesting. It reminds me a lot of how we need both pure and applied science, and both horizonta l/vertical thinking. This relates to some thoughts about intellectual absolutism that have always bothered me…it won’t help us figure out the complex systems and problems we are dealing with.”

I agree both specifically to the point regarding revolutionary thinkers coming from outside the mainstream as well as for the general philosophy of accepting the paradox of opposing ends of spectrums in order to gain comprehension.

My qualification to Von’s comment is that the isolation he cites here is of an intermediate variety; Newton was a social misfit but was still connected to the formal academic world. Freud and Einstein, contemporaries, were initially marginalized in their fields prior to their respective breakthroughs due to their dissatisfaction with prevailing orthodoxies ( Newtonian physics and physiologically based psychology) as well as their status as Jews in conservative, Catholic, Imperial Austria-Hungary. Brilliant outlier figures who well understood the premises of their fields and found them inadequate, rather than hermits or dilettantes.


If you live North of Chicago or have an interest in education, Dr. Von is being the good citizen and is running for his local school board. Aside from his past scientific work at Fermilab, Von’s experience in innovative educational programs, such as Project Excite, which is supported in part by Northwestern University, is both extensive and impressive. He could use your support and feedback, if you are so inclined, here is his site.

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