Nick Carr has a highly thought provoking piece in the Atlantic this month titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that raises some challenging questions about what the Web is doing to our reading skills and to our intellects. As with many of these types of pieces, it’s really hard not to read this through the lens of what this means for our teaching and our curriculum, and I think there is little doubt it means a lot. Carr actually makes several similar points to Mark Bauerline in “The Dumbest Generation” (which I’m almost finished with, btw) with the difference that I honestly think he wants us to think deeply about what all of this means. (Bauerline just wants to call names and toss around blame, for the most part.)
Let me say that Carr’s description of how his own reading habits have changed resonate deeply:
Over the past few years Iâ€™ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isnâ€™t goingâ€”so far as I can tellâ€”but itâ€™s changing. Iâ€™m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when Iâ€™m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and Iâ€™d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. Thatâ€™s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if Iâ€™m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Describes me to a tee, though I have to say there are still longer works (Shirky’s book most recently) that I find hard to put down. But the denser stuff, Wealth of Networks, for one example, I find tough any more. And there are some prominent edbloggers who I simply don’t read because of the length of their posts. In many ways, my own angst about this is why I am so thrilled that my own kids are reading books, that they are at least getting a sense of that extended, deep reading that longer works provide, even though I know that once they start really reading more online, that may change.
While there is little research to clearly paint a picture of what is going on in our heads, something is most definitely afoot. Carr cites a study that says
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of â€œreadingâ€ are emerging as users â€œpower browseâ€ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
(Read the comment thread to my earlier post to get a sense of that debate.)
There’s more that’s equally compelling in terms of making the case that in all likelihood, the Web is changing the way we read. But the obvious question here is, what are the implications for us as educators whose students are reading more and more in online environments? I’m not suggesting that this type of reading is necessarily better or worse than our pre-Web worlds. I don’t think Carr is either; in fact he takes pains to point to moments in history when new technologies were created and roundly denounced only to see great gains in ways few could have predicted. Perhaps this is a step in our evolution as thinkers and learners. Who knows? But what I do know is that very few schools are thinking deeply about what this all means in terms of reading development and practice.
Maybe this article will jump start some conversations.
(Photo “Day 79-Focus” by Margolove.)
Benjamin Baxter says
I’d respond insightfully, but I skipped over much of your post, and I don’t really understand the larger implicat … Look, a butterfly!
Christine Cowen says
Thanks! I just did a spit take laughing at that comment. 🙂
Julia Osteen says
You talk about the implications for our students and I do believe that we should consider those. We also need to realize that as teachers begin to read more online their reading habits are changing as well. Sending out long email messages with nothing to break it up is an invitation for a teacher to say, “I’ll read it later” and then never get around to it.
We need to consider the implications for all of our communication forms.
Mark Hamilton says
A thought I had after reading Carr’s piece is that a lot of my “deep reading” is being replaced by “breadth reading.” The deep read takes place over time as more and more aspects of whatever it is that has captured my attention either come into my view or are the subjects of search, etc. Not sure about the implications about this for my teaching/students, other than perhaps putting a big sign up above every computer screen that says “Don’t stop searching” and “But stop of think.”
Will Richardson says
@Mark I think the importance of deep, sustained, reading is that we need to see the connections within texts as well as between texts. I too read widely and make connections often (tags, metadata etc helps that) but I am finding it more difficult, as I said, to read longer works that I can’t tag and organize. Maybe the fact that most of those longer works are still on analog paper is a factor…dunno.
Reminds me of this quote –
“I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”
— Woody Allen
Alan Kwan says
If we can question traditional teaching methods, we might as well question traditional writing methods. May be it is time we really examine whether whatever we considered to be literary creation really is all that. Didn’t we start to tell college kids to write concisely instead of filling pages and pages with redundant concepts and ideas of redundancy?
Will Richardson says
@Alan Absolutely agree. If reading really is changing, we better think about the implications for writing. I think we ought to teach “connective writing” or whatever you want to call it, the idea that writing connects ideas and people and starts conversations, not simply informs or gets consumed by the reader.
I have to imagine the title was created by an editor, not by Carr himself. Because the article as a whole is, as you point out, very honest, balanced, and thought-provoking. I think he’s ambivalent and uncertain about the impact of the web but I think he does at least succeed in showing that it is indeed changing how we think. But to call the new way of thinking “stupidity” is to make a value judgment based on what has gone before. We live in a postmodern, multicultural society where being able to make connections and comparison between far-flung and oftentimes contrasting ideas is more important than it ever was before. If we think in hyperlinks, then perhaps that is what is called for in this world and we have invented and chosen to pay attention to a medium that matches that new way of perceiving reality. So, yes, maybe we do “think different” now; but I’m not sure that’s “stupidity” and I’m not sure Carr thinks so, either…
Robin Heyden says
I agree with Mike, and was pleased to see him make this point. In fact, when I first read the title of the Carr article on the cover of Atlanatic Monthly (which is, to be specific) “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” I threw the magazine down in disgust – yet another of these scare-tactic articles to rally the luddite troops again.
But a deeper (ahem?) read of the article revealed that Carr takes a very balanced stance and is really just questioning the changes he observes and thoughtfully chronicaling/speculating about them. Whew. Sure would be nice to have the article without the hyperbolic title.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for pointing that out Robin. I was going to make mention of that “Stoopid” title too, and how stupid I thought it was. ;0)
It just occurred to me that a couple of centuries ago, people were probably posing similar questions about the impact of another new medium on people’s ability to “deep read”: magazines.
Steve Ransom says
I think it was less about the medium than it was about the content of magazines. Magazines (not all) tended to report trivia more just like they do today. Neil Postman discusses this shift in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. However, newspapers brought a new power to the people and gave them voice, just as new technologies today are doing.
I guess I don’t understand “literacy” to be one, and only one, type of reading/writing/comprehension/application. Aren’t there many types of literacies? Shouldn’t we be learning and teaching multiple strategies for multiple literacies? I would never give up reading books, because I love learning through reading. But I also practice skimming for relevant content when I read online articles, blogs, etc. Additionally, I can sightread and play music, read in French… I simply learned different decoding skills for all of the above. It’s imperative that students learn that none of these skills is the BEST. They’re just different.
Stephen Kennedy says
As an educator, as well as a reader, it does seem that changes in attention, memory, and other cognitive functions are occurring. My guess is, however, they have always been changing, though in subtler ways. Nearly thirty years ago my bright private school sixth graders balked at long passages, long books, long anything. At sixty, I’m now the same way. It’s hard to tell exactly where the effects of recent technology kick in — we know the brain is far more plastic than we used to think it was. But it’s also resilient and adaptive. Will our students’ attention, intellect, and thinking skills take a licking? Perhaps. They always have and they always will, despite the technology. What ultimately gives me great hope — and daily inspiration in school — is that virtually any kid will spend hours and hours on a book or a project or an idea IF it is engaging, meaningful, and somehow personally inviting of energy and “flow.” Be it Harry Potter or quantum theory — I am optimistic that our students will grow up attentive and focused — IF our teachers learn to engage them at a root level. Breadth is good, depth is good, power browsing is good, being lost in a great book is good — but War and Peace will always require heroic reading habits even if on Kindle.
Will Richardson says
@stephen I agree, passion is the key. I’m also struck by how we might need to change our ideas of attention, intellect, and thinking skills as well. Thanks for the comment.
Michael Coghlan says
I know exactly what Nicholas Carr means. More and more I find myself engaged in what I call horizontal learning (skimming multiple resources, multitasking), and have to force myself to engage in vertical learning (prolonged focus on a single topic or resource.) There is indeed a change afoot.
Implications? Identify, make explicit, and teach both approaches. See http://www.slideshare.net/michaelc/what-constitutes-excellence-in-an-eteaching-environment2/
Steve Ransom says
New skills emerge all the time. Does this mean that they should replace more traditional skills or simply complement them? Do we need to throw the baby out with the bath water? Deep reading (and thinking and action) is necessary for deep understanding. A nation of skimmers is s nation in deep trouble.
@Benjamin (first post) – I thought your response was very funny. It made me laugh out loud. However, I also fear that it is becoming all too true for many learners.
Benjamin Baxter says
The issue becomes: What is the importance of that old skill of deep reading and deep concentration these days?
We only have a problem once if we can recognize a few examples of practical application for this skill.
Powerskimming has its own applications, certainly.
Alan Kwan says
I’m curious, how do you define deep reading?
Steve Ransom says
In his book, The Culture of Education, Jerome Bruner writes, “The enemy of reflection is the breakneck pace – the thousand pictures.”
To me, I see kids skimming for the facts… the Coles Notes approach to learning things that are much more complex and situated in contexts that cannot be skimmed for. As an adult, I am able to identify when I am skimming for information or key ideas and when I need to slow down, process, reflect, dig a little deeper and comprehend at a higher level. Kids are still learning this metacognitive skill and I don’t think “Intentional thinking during which meaning is constructed through interactions between text and reader” (Harris and Hodges, 1995) is happening with kids as they skim websites and look for shortcuts to answers and solutions that require more of them… That’s all I meant.
Stephen Kennedy says
And, ultimately, the learning does not reside in the teacher, but in the learner. If a reader is engaged, the learning is happening. If the learner approaches text/idea actively, something transformational will happen. Short, long, broad, deep — as long as we are making meaning, good stuff takes place.
Steve Ransom says
“As long as we are making meaning, good stuff takes place.”
I don’t think that this statement is a truism, is it?
But true – there are numerous approaches to reading and ways to comprehend ideas in print at varying levels.
Kyle Brumbaugh says
I think the traditional sense of writing, and hence reading, is changing from a two dimensional to a three dimensional medium. Reading traditional works, we had a page with height and width, but the reader was expected to provide his own depth from his own learning. There might be some inferences or contextual clues within the work to assist the reader to provide depth, but it was by no means cleanly laid out for the reader. Today, with tags and metadata, we expect the author of any work online to provide the third dimension with hyperlinks to terms, literary references or even some type of multisensory media to provide the third dimension.
Maybe you, along with many of us dealing with the new definition of literacy where height, width AND DEPTH are part of the process. As a community of learners, we have come to expect the depth to be provided for us by the author and when it isn’t, we go and seek it as we encounter items in the reading that interest us. This may explain why you, and others are experiencing literary works differently than in the past.
Another explanation could easily come from the idea that we wanted things to be ‘linear’ in nature, but over the past few years with the rise of information available 24/7/365, our society has moved to a non-linear or topical way of processing information.
Charlie A. Roy says
One substantive change is the sheer volume of work to read through and filter on the net. If we are now reading for breadth rather than depth it certainly pushes writers to differentiate themselves and use the power of the written word to attract readers. With more choices the cream should rise towards the top.
John Hendron says
I already wrote about this at my own blog:
As you said, Will:
But the obvious question here is, what are the implications for us as educators whose students are reading more and more in online environments?
The implications are we need to teach using these tools and what makes these tools unique! I’ve tried, but many teachers tell me, “Oh well, we’ll find something to read on paper, anyhow; I hate reading online!”
Yeah, I work with people who have rules about printing out emails that are too long; they prefer to read them “for comfort” on paper. But this discussion isn’t about the legibility of text on screen, it’s about genres of writing that are (when well done) built for scanning, that emulate more a summary than something rich, or detailed.
I think reading a webpage has very specific skills we can teach. It will involve scanning, highlighting, and following a lot of links. Asking questions. Articulating these, hopefully, and being able to answer them with multiple points of contact made throughout the reading process.
You can compare this, now, to reading something on an eBook reader, such as the popular Kindle. They are emulating BOOKS, not webpages, but add interactive components (virtual bookmarks, underlining/highlighting, and dictionary lookups).
What’s disappointing for me about this new device is the reluctance to look at some of the latest reading research done at PARC that has demonstrated we can be much more EFFICIENT at reading by presenting one word at a time.
And for me, when this comes about, I think reading by computer will finally have reached a plateau that offers very overt advantages, even for those who find reading online distracting or frustrating.
And that ultimately is the bigger of many challenges: how do we convince folks to adapt strategies for reading online when it seems like it might be more work, and is frustrating for the teacher??
Robin Heyden says
Very interesting, John. We need to give much more thought, most definitely, to the ways that we read online and what we should be teaching our students about reading (and writing) online.
Your comment reminds me of an observation I’ve had, watching high school students read web sites. I’ve seen many students use their mouse to “highlight” while they read (as in drag their depressed mouse over a phrase or a sentence in order to highlight it – and then click away to highlight something else). Some students will just use the mouse in order to trail the cursor along the words as they read (like the old follow-the-bouncing-ball). Still others will obsessively click on words, double click, and click again – maybe hoping for a link or just channeling nervous energy? What’s happening there and what information does that give us about their online reading strategies?
Stephen Kennedy says
Somehow, the fact that we are engaging each other here, and considering the complexity of reading, and responding/thinking/replying/challenging/encouraging and more means that our thread of meaning has kicked in. We will model that for the children and young people we encounter — as students, our own children, and the kids at church/synogogue/temple/grocery store. I am enthusiastic about the hidden curricula and subtexts and inadvertent stolen moments with kids that travel alongside new technology: for those teachers who use technology innovatively (and not just as plugged-in textbooks and blackboards), their students are already those digital natives and pioneers who will have long transcended our dialogue in another few years. Or I could be entirely wrong and reading could be charged by the minute at my Starbucks’s AT&T wireless hookup at Barnes and Noble.
Lyndsey Koestner says
I think it is important to remember that there are several different types of reading and purposes for reading. Reading a newspaper is not the same as reading an instruction manual or a history book. People read material for specific purposes. The same is true for the internet. It is not better or worse but different. It is important for students to be taught how to read on the web. Students and teachers alike will continue to use the web more and more. I also think it should not replace any other types of reading. The web is a newer genre for students to learn.
Lisa Moore says
I’m a newcomer. In fact, this topic was the meat of my second-ever blog posting.
Is Google Making Us Stupid?
In the July/August issue of the “Atlantic Monthly,” Nicholas Carr ponders this question.
I’ll admit that the uber-connectedness of the internet has reprogrammed many of my thought patterns and daily routines. (Morning: “Must turn on computer. Must make coffee and check e-mail.”) On a larger scale, it has, arguably, redefined what it means to be literate. Though Carr celebrates the convenience of the internet, he laments his own lost ability to “read deeply,” sacrificed for the hyper-now-ness and superefficiency of the web.
The whole article is really a coming to terms with these trade-offs. To put it in perspective – or maybe just talk himself through it – Carr informs us that even Socrates himself bemoaned the development of writing. “He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would … ‘cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.'” And “they would be ‘filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.'”
I admit, like Carr and Socrates, I am sometimes nostalgic for the past and a little frightened of the future. Sometimes I feel like the media artist Paul Chan who foregoes Internet access in his studio to protect himself from what he calls the “tyranny of connectedness.”
Looking into the future, Socrates would have laughed at his worries – maybe even written about them on his blog. In the same way, Carr, myself and other late-comers to the Internet bandwagon will learn to trade our worries for a carefree ride to wherever this magic carpet of technology takes us.
And is it really necessary to make a value judgment? The Internet is here. If that gets to be too much, we can just click on the little red “X” and hide out with a good book for a while.
Sara Kajder says
Will (and all) – I really recommend that you take a look at Wolf’s Proust and the Squid which is cited throughout this article. I think her notion of deep reading puts really useful pressures on how we are thinking about new literacies and, especially, school texts. An aside – I’m finding that my reading practices online have also transferred to how I read on the kindle – to the point that I just purchased a print copy of a book that I had electronically because of my need to “go deep…” Something about reading with buttons… ???
Will Richardson says
I’ve almost been convinced to buy the Kindle, but whenever I look at my dog-eared, marked up copy of “Here Comes Everybody” (as just one example) I wonder. I’d probably just fill it with murder mysteries for those long plane rides… ;0)
Laura Deisley/Deacs84 on Twitter says
Although my reading stack of BOOKS is piling up, I will have to add Wolf’s “Proust and The Squid”…
I will note that I had a weekend to myself, no interruptions, and I chose to spend time on my own blog and to catch up on the back-fill in my reader. I did a lot of wide reading, but also I know I was going deeper. I spent most of the weekend reading, and reflecting, and digging for more. If spread too wide, I often have to take a break. Not at all the case this weekend; if anything, I was disappointed when my reading and thinking had to come to a halt when the masses returned.
In education, I think the deeper reading and thinking can be supported by these online reading experiences particularly when partnered with a literature study. The opportunity for students to use the tools to expand the social discourse beyond the confines of the classroom “hour” and also support their thinking by introducing visual media (images, videos) and hyperlinks to research, another opinion, another book…that to me is appealing and allows for the deep and the wide…and far greater synthesis and potentially creation.
Alas, I must admit to being a lover of books, and a Kindle would not serve me well. I rarely “loan” my books, preferring to add them to my bookshelves and treasure them like good friends. Something written online at The Future of the Book (http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2007/03/time_out_and_some_of_what_went.html)stays with me. It’s a quote attributed to John Updike. He states that books represent “an encounter, in silence, of two minds.” I guess that is what is at risk here…Here Comes Everybody has a place, but sometimes it’s got to be a more intimate meeting of the minds.
Lisa Steen says
I think this really has to do with the amount of time we all have to devote to more intensive reading. Many years ago my husband and I took a year off and traveled. I read Dickens, Russian authors, everything I had always wanted to read with more than 500 pages. :^)
Then we went home, had babies, and suddenly I had trouble concentrating on anything more intense than Agatha Cristie. I am still busy, but I notice that for vacations I can stock up on literature that I actually have to think about.
So how busy are you and how does that affect your ability to find a regular block of time to read and to think about what you just read? Is this all age-based and as soon as the now teenagers move out the “problem” will be solved?
Hilary Short says
Case in point: I did not stumble upon Carr’s article, or the study it referenced or Scott Karp, whose ideas may have equally inspired Carr’s article, until I read a passing, negative reference to Carr’s article in The Atlantic in a blog to which I subscribe. As a teacher, your balanced reaction, comparatively, got me thinking. I most closely identify with Mike Curtin’s vision that hypertext and Web 2.0 tools might dissolve cultural borders and unite disparate people and ideas.
Early in my assessment of Car, I accused Carr of blundering because he suggested that the internet could repattern an individualâ€™s cognitive processâ€”is it naÃ¯ve for me to hope that the same internet can repattern a worldâ€™s social stratosphere? Absolutely.
Here’s the question, though: Is it a sign of my ignorance that I must rely on–reference–so many other ideas in forming my own, something which would have been even more time-consuming, if not impossible, to accomplish before Web 2.0 tools like Google and blogs? If so, I don’t mind being broadly stoopid 🙂