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Wide Reading

July 14, 2014

Exploring C21 Literacy

It’s a common complaint in English departments acorss the country and probably the world – they’re just not reading.  We all know that there are plenty of reasons why young people are opting out of reading and we all try our best to encourage reading inside and outside school.

This year, in addition to library visits where my junior classes take part in book waterfalls, book speed dating and other activities designed to turn them back onto reading, I’ve launched another blog. Initially this was to share my own reading experiences with my students and point them to sites to inspire their reading. what I found was, they just weren’t using it and if they were, I certainly didn’t know about it.

I’ve now sent invites to 58 students with a view to them being able to post about their reading as well as comment on posts.  It seemed…

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The missionary Position

October 23, 2013

What are the Digital Natives doing with all the bandwidth and access to the internet?  Those who subscribe to Mark Prensky’s theory that our youth are Digital Natives seem to also be saying that the Digital Natives are leading the way in adopting new technologies and in finding new ways to use those technologies.  Every now and then we catch a glimpse, as if in a glass darkly, of where these natives are guiding the tourists in their world of cyberspace.

What it suggests to me is that we are not being lead to the promised land or even a glimpse of that marvel.

When Vodafone launched a 4 G service in February 2013, they began tracking as many as 20,000 users (and you thought it was the GCSB or NSA!)  to see how they are using this cornucopia, this Aladdin’s cave. The results are depressing.

Big spikes in usage are recorded at large public events, not surprisingly. Nor is it surprising that these big events are concerts by popular musicians and sporting contests in the major codes.  That translates to Beyonce and the All Blacks, not the Symphony Orchestra nor the New Zealand Ballet.

What are these people doing on their smart phones?  Vodafone’s consumer director, Matt Williams seems to think it is uploading photographs of themselves and their friends, followed by photographs of the performers on the stage or on the paddock.  There is a spike of uploading then they switch to downloading the pictures their friends have taken.  Not a lot of attention seems to be paid to the activities they came to see.

The net is full of comment about Gen Y being narcissistic.  I’m not too keen on condemning a whole generation whether that is Digital Immigrant or Gen Y but we do know who are more likely to pay for tickets to see Beyonce and who have the disposable income.

What the research from Vodafone shows is that bread and circuses occupy the public mind as firmly as they did in the days of the Roman Empire.  It also tells us that the digital natives will still have to be taught how to use the internet to some purpose.  Watching the America’s Cup? Yes.  Looking for solutions to real world problems? No. Matt Williams also calls it a virtuous circle of increased consumption.  Words fail me.

If the Digital Natives are not going to teach themselves digital literacy then someone else will have to teach them to read.  What could we call such people? Digital Missionaries anyone?

Digital natives or just lost boys?

September 21, 2013

The industry reporting new findings in research into brain development often teams up with the commentators on what makes the generations different.  Recently Rhys Blakely in The Times quoting The Wall Street Journal and HR Magazine commented on a trait of the Millennial Generation, an unwillingness to leave home.  Well certainly my son has returned to live at home but I hadn’t noticed it was a major new trend.

The journalists in question, however, are agreed on a cause and an explanation.  The millennials are the first generation to be connected 24 hours a day. When the Woodstock Generation went away from home they might call once a week.  Now everyone has a phone and they call home three to four times a day.  This higher connectivity translates into hyperdependence.

HR magazine asserts that computers and cellphones have changed brain development by altering the development of the pre-frontal cortex.  Millennnials don’t leave home because they are not yet ready to do so.

Well, we’ve heard that line before, that computers have altered the way millennials brains are wired, although I’m not sure Marc Prensky was  specific about the pre-frontal cortex; nor did he express concern about his digital natives delaying the moment when they left home.

The theory exposes itself right from the start.  Millennials, when they go away from home ring up repeatedly. Hang about – isn’t the claim that they won’t leave home?  So they leave home, develop this hyperdependency and so can’t leave the home they just left.

Next, do we have neuro-scientists who support this view? Certainly Rhys Blakely quotes other journalists so I guess the answer is no.

Can medical imaging show us that the pre-frontal cortex hasn’t developed? Rhys hasn’t mentioned this trivial detail.  We can assume he is correct and dispense with the need for scientific evidence.

When I test the theory against what I know, I consider that for centuries, families spanning several generations lived in the same household.  They still do in traditional societies.  I can recall here in New Zealand stories of people reaching the end of their lives,  having continued to  live with their parents and eventually take over the family home.  People who were behaving like millennials a hundred years before the millennium and all without cell phones and computers.  Then there were parents who wanted the child to stay home to look after the parent in their old age.  My aunt stayed home to care for my grandmother, but I never enquired about the state of her pre-frontal cortex.

Many of us left home for further study in other towns or to seek job opportunities.  Young people still do.  They go home to their families because it is cheaper.  Other young people leave home to have more freedom. Still others quarrel with their families and walk out, a sort of divorce. In fact, it is possibly because their pre-frontal cortex is undeveloped, that they leave home, not the reverse.

Then there is the argument that cell phones make us more connected. I can recall parents who – before there were cellphones – purchased a separate telephone line for their adolescent so that child could spend every free moment on the phone.   Then there were the rural households sharing a party line.  What do Rhys Blakely and his fellows consider to be hyperconnectivity?  Certainly the cell phone made it possible to be on line before we get home but excessive use of telephones is not something new.

Let’s just say that this claim is not yet proven.

Wise old heads

May 18, 2011

The commercial popularity of medical self help books seems to be a testament to the desire of the digital immigrant to prevent the spread of tropical diseases in the digital homeland, or at the very least to enjoy a greater quality of life than any previous generation has experienced.  Concerns about dementia, coupled with new discoveries in brain scanning can also illuminate a major theme of this blog: a critique of the Digital Natives Digital Immigrants model.

In a new book, Secrets of the Grown up Brain: the surprising talents of the middle aged mind (2010),  Barbara Strauch argues that brains actually get better at lots of things with age.  She challenges the factoid that we lose up to a third of our brain cells as we age.  In a healthy person, the brain stays reasonably intact.

As Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s  fictional detective was fond of saying, our brains consist of grey cells, but they do not work alone.  They are connected by bundles of nerve tissue, which are white in appearance and these white cells are covered in a fatty substance called myelin.  (So there is some truth in the insult hurled at Billy Bunter, Owl of the Remove at Greyfriars School.  We are fat heads.)  However, current thinking is that the more myelin we have, the better we think, because the myelin has some function in helping the white matter connect the grey cells.  Current research appears to suggest that the process of covering the nerve fibres with myelin continues well into middle age, and, moreover, that this is a good thing.  Strauch refers to the result as “great connected brains”, able to think better, see patterns, connect ideas.

If you follow this blog, you might expect that I will now link Strauch’s findings to Marc Prensky’s idea that young people’s brains are wired differently.  What all the brain research reveals, is that our brains are plastic, so Prensky is partly correct.  The net generation, through their exposure to and use of digital technology, do think differently, but do they think better? Strauch would suggest better thinking comes with maturity.  I think the more interesting conclusion is that our brains are capable of change throughout our lives.  It is not that the Net gen brains are wired differently, it is that all of us are changing in our mental capacities throughout our lives.  In colonial New Zealand, a British immigrant who adopted coarser colonial ways was said to have “eaten his toot”;  “toot’ being a corruption of the Maori word, Tutu, for a poisonous berry responsible for the deaths of large numbers of sheep.  It seems we can all “eat our toot’ and become digital natives.

It may be a fact that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but it is a factoid when we apply that adage to human beings. Toot! Toot!

Amazons or Athenians, what tribe is this?

May 17, 2011

In the legends of Ancient Greece. are the stories about warrior women, the Amazons, whose queen Hippolyta was finally subdued by the Athenian hero Theseus.  The story of their marriage forms the backdrop to Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream.  The moral for the Greeks, presumably was that men were the superior sex.  Modern thinking has debunked that view, but it comes to the surface again in pseudo scientific guises

In a book published in 2006, (The Female Brain) the science writer Louann  Brizendine developed a thesis that women’s brains work differently from men’s.  One piece of Brizendine’s  evidence was seized on by a large audience, the claim that women uttered 20,000 words a day against the 7,000 spoken by men.  The Daily Mail for example argued “It is something one half of the population has long suspected – and the other half always vocally denied.”  The Washington Post : “Women talk too much, and men only think about sex…you need a Ph.D. to figure that out?”   The book went into numerous translations with much the same effect .  The German publisher wrote in their blurb “Warum gebrauchen Frauen 20 000 Worter am Tag, wahrend Manner nur 7000?”

However, none of the people who seized on this claim actually bothered to look seriously at her evidence.  The Female Brain certainly is a weighty tome with about thirty percent of the text given over to footnotes, making the book look academic.   Fortunately, Mark Lieberman from the University of Pennsylvania did comb through the book looking for the evidence and found just one reference to support this claim.  It came from a book by Alan Pease and Allan Garner.    Pease is the author of self help books on letter writing and body language which always struck me as more entertaining  than useful.  Lieberman read their book Talk Language: how to use conversation for profit and pleasure  (2003) (Pease Training Corporation) and found that Pease had no evidence to support the claim either.

See Liberman’s blog  http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

There is research however in the linguistics literature which argues the exact opposite.  Janet Homes, for example in Women, men and politeness found that men spoke more, on average, than women.  Liberman lists a lot of the research into the incidence of talkativeness and none of it supports Brizendine’s claim.  In the year following the publication of Brizendine’s book, a study published in Science tracked 210 women and 186 men and found that women used about 3.5 per cent more words than men.  Given the result, the size of the study and its methodology, this scarcely validates Brizendine’s claim.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is that Brizendine finally agreed to remove this assertion from future editions of the book.

Why then did so many people seize on this claim and why do commentators still continue to present it as fact?  In his study of this controversy (You are what you speak) Robert Lane Greene labelled this tendency the “intellectual id”, the eagerness with which people will believe something they almost desperately want to believe is true.  William James put it another way;  “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices. “  The fact is that we tend to form an opinion, then we look for evidence to support our point of view, while rejecting that evidence which contradicts us.

I suggest, that as with Louanne Brizendine, so with Marc Prensky.  As I have argued so often in this blog, his Digital natives, Digital Immigrants argument is fallacious.  There is no more evidence there is a generational difference in brain function than there is a gender one.

I want an iPad

January 19, 2011

Fleur Britten writing in The Sunday Times looks at the phenomenon of young children (i.e. under the age of five) using iPad.  Her discussion ranges over familiar themes:  the dangers of addiction, the question whether using iPad reduces the amount of physical activity, the value of interactive devices in cognitive development and in learning problem solving skills.  It’s a new device but the issues have a familiar ring going back to the debate about the educational value of television.

I thought it might be interesting to look at this from the Prensky analysis 0f Digital Natives.  Strangely neither Britten or her panel of experts uses this analysis.  Instead she suggests that it is Apple’s intuitive devices, the icons and the touch screen which means even a very small child can navigate the device.  Certainly there are Youtube videos of small children operating iPad’s.  Is this proof of Prensky’s claim about children being digital natives?  Well, there are just as many YouTube videos showing cats operating iPads.  I’ve never seen a cat looking at a television screen but cats can operate iPads because of the touch screen and the fact that they get a response.  It’s a little difficult to tell from the videos whether these are old cats or young cats, so we could decide if cats are digital natives or immigrants, or if this is determined by their age.

It’s great that small children can operate iPads but like Fleur Britten, I suspect that is a product of the clever design of the iPad.  I would expect older people to be able to operate one just as well.  The fact that one of the parents quotes in the article, believes her child is better at using the iPad in my view proves nothing.  This is one parent’s opinion and it can be explained by the child practicing more than the parent.

Another thought I’ve had occurred to me after my wife remarked about how her one year old grand niece could use a cell phone.  The parents of these under five year old’s are themselves the digital natives of yester year.  Prensky wrote his article ten year’s ago (2001) when today’s young parents were teenagers and certified digital natives.  If they are now digital immigrants, when did that happen?  Surely it is becoming more obvious that digital natives/digital immigrants is just not explaining what is going on.

Is it truly possible to be too old to learn?

July 12, 2010

I think the term “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” is a gross generalisation, and as such unhelpful to our discussion.

It is a generalisation because it is abundantly clear that while children can pick up new technologies very quickly, this is not inevitable.   Children raised in traditional communities will not pick up new technologies because they do not have the opportunities and they are socialised to avoid and resist.   Imagine an Amish child presented with a computer.

Secondly, young people adopt new technologies much like adults, some are early adopters and some stoutly resist.  Most fall somewhere in between along a continuum between the two extremes.  This point is well made in a recent report by the [United States] National Schools Board Association, Creating and Connecting//Research and Guidelines on Online Social – and Educational – Networking.  The report discusses the “Nonconformist” who is at the cutting edge of adopting new technologies.   It also mentions by omission the adolescents who do not participate in online communities

The dichotomy suggested by “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” also implies the idea behind the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.   There may be some truth in that saying but I question whether we should apply an understanding which we have gained about dogs and apply it to human beings.

Like young people, adults adopt new technologies at different rates.   The educational community might learn a little from market research which has coined the term “early adopters”.

One of the many things which separate human beings from animals is that adults do learn.  What is more useful to grasp is that adults learn differently to children and adolescents.    In 1975, Malcolm Knowles published his ideas on what he called “andragogy” (to distinguish it from pedagogy).

His principles are that:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (Self-concept and Motivation to learn).
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities (Experience).
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life (Readiness to learn).
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented (Orientation to learning).

I suggest these principles are more useful than “Digital natives, Digital immigrants”.

I’m in a google state of mind

October 29, 2009

One of the things I have been critical of in my comments on Marc Prensky and his Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants hypothesis is that there is no evidence which would  support his claim that Digital Natives by virtue of their exposure to computers and the internet, have differently wired brains.  Apparently, neuro scientists do believe in a concept they call neuro plasticity but that in itself does not support Prensky’s hypothesis.

In 2008 Dr Gary Small published a book iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the Modern Mind, along with his partner, Gigi Vorgon,  a freelance writer. Small is an eminent medical researcher who pioneered MRI scans to show there was physical evidence that the brain aged, and he was able to show evidence of Altzheimer’s Disease in living persons.  It would follow, therefore, that his adoption of the Digital Native Digital Immigrant model in his book would give much weight to Prensky’s case.

In iBrain, Small is writing about young people, Generation Y, but his research has been with older people, mostly, but not always, the elderly.  We see this in a paper he published in February 2009  in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology. (I said he has lots of street cred!)

To this untutored person, what Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer found actually argues against the Prensky hypothesis.  The study asked a group of older people to conduct on line searches in Google while the researchers studied their brain activity, hence the title of their paper, Patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching.  The subjects varied in age, the youngest was 55, and some were experienced users of the internet while others were novices.  The conclusion was that all subjects showed changes in the ways their brains worked during and after their searching.  The trouble for the Prensky hypothesis is it argues that only Digital Natives will show  changes to their brains. Whatever you call the people born between 1945 and 1955, Baby Boomers, Woodstock Generation, Generation Jones,  they are all part of Prensky’s Digital Immigrants and this should not be happening.  The fact that this research was conducted by a researcher who had previously supported the Prensky hypothesis should give pause for thought.

Small, Garry W., Moody, T.D.,  Siddarth, P., and Bookheimer, S.Y., (2009) Patterns of Cerebral Activation during internet searching, American Journal of Geriatric Psychology pp 116-126.

Small, Garry W and Vorgon, Gigi (2008) iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, Collins 256p.