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Thursday, February 21, 2008

What Should We Teach, and How?

“One of the most common selling points for computers in schools, even in first and second grades, is to prepare youngsters for tomorrow's increasingly high-tech jobs. Strangely, this may be the computer evangels' greatest hoax. When business leaders talk about what they need from new recruits, they hardly mention computer skills, which they find they can teach employees relatively easily on their own. Employers are most interested in what are sometimes called ‘soft’ skills: a deep knowledge base and the ability to listen and communicate; to think critically and imaginatively; to read, write and figure, and other capabilities that schools are increasingly neglecting.” – San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 2003

Read the whole article at
The article is over three years old, but in classic overdriving-our-headlights fashion, we as communities haven’t caught on yet. Years ago, at an academic party in a university town, a group of computer scientists agreed that banks of computers for public schools didn't make good educational sense; pomoting computers for schools, however, brought grant money to academic departments. Is further comment necessary?

I would be very grateful to anyone who could identify for me a book (title and author’s name forgotten; I think the author was a woman Ph.D. but can’t remember in her field) that I read two to five years back on the subject of reading, writing, thinking and computers. (Googling for this list of terms brings a googleplex of results and is no help whatsoever for anyone without infinite time.) The claim I want to review in the book has to do with reading print on pages vs. reading text on screen. The author cited research to show that while we lump these two activities together as “reading,” our brains are engaged in very dissimilar activities, and that while the first kind of reading strengthens the brain’s ability to follow complex narratives and argument chains, the latter actually erodes that ability. As I recall, this was not a consequence of paragraph vs. bullet style but something basic to do with brain physiology and kinds of light. Perhaps the bullet style even came about as a consequence of decreased ability on the part of screen readers to follow contextualized points of argument.

The other day I assigned my community college students a one-page, 200-word essay. “Can we use bullets?” one of them asked. “You may include them, but don’t use them for the whole essay,” I answered. “I want sentences and paragraphs!” If my blogging style starts showing signs of decaying into unrelated “points” that don’t add up to anything, I hope I’ll be aware enough to notice and call the whole thing off. No doubt one of my friends will be kind enough to let me know?

Meanwhile, to catch up to where I am now with books, I’ll backtrack to remind you that I set aside BEATRIX POTTER: A LIFE IN NATURE to pick up THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS, which I loved and finished quickly. Then CRUSADER’S CROSS tempted me, but that lost out (temporarily) to LIBBY: THE ALASKAN DIARIES OF LIBBY BEAMAN, 1879-1880 and Zadie Smith’s ON BEAUTY. LIBBY hooked me until the last page, and then I went back to ON BEAUTY, finishing that book this morning (having taken off some time for David Hume’s TREATISE ON HUMAN NATURE along the way). What can I say of ON BEAUTY? It isn’t a new release—I’m always “behind” on my reading when it comes to new books!—so it’s been sufficiently reviewed and doesn’t need my two cents added. Quite extraordinary. That such a young writer could portray with such depth and sensitivity her older, middle-aged characters is more than impressive: it’s downright frightening. I'll be getting back to BEATRIX POTTER, though, and finishing it long before spring arrives.

Tomorrow I’ll give a detailed activities and contests list for Saturday’s Winter Carnival. Promise!


Anonymous said...

I'd love to read that article! And as for companies looking for computer skills, I couldn't agree more. I got hired for my current job to operate a database and do heavy Photoshop, neither of which I had any experience! They hired me for other reasons, and then they trained me from there.

Blogging and writing - one trick I do to avoid getting a bad case of "computer brain" is to write my articles by hand first. It might sound like too much work, but I find I write so much better when there's not a keyboard in the way! (Sorry for the long comment - so much to say.)

P. J. Grath said...

Diane, it was a whole book! It so impressed me at the time that I wrote a very long, detailed e-mail to friends and relatives, but do you think anyone could come up with it later after I lost my own sent copy? And then what—did I sell the book or send it to someone?

I first encountered word processing on the job, dragged into it kicking and screaming. Since then I’ve picked up the rest on my own, with a little help from my friends. It’s always changing, anyway (just like bookselling), so what worked four years ago, i.e., freshman year, won’t necessarily work after graduation.

Yellow legal pad, rollerball pen, coffee shop. That’s my standard of perfection. And yes, sometimes I write out blog entries that way first, too.

Always good to hear from you.

Linda Lear said...

Well, I'm the biographer of "Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature" and I've been hanging by my toenails waiting for you to read it!! I realize its a big book and lots of notes etc. But if you just read it through,you will find an surprising story and a dazzling introduction to a Beatrix Potter that you never even imagined.
Such was her genius that it could go from rabbits and cabbages to
fungi and fantasy, fairies and
fells, landscapes and flowers.
I do hope you'll finish it,and tell me what you think.
Thank you for a great blog.
Linda Lear,

Susan Och said...

I tried to research that piece when you mentioned it on my blog. The trouble is that I encountered so many interesting distractions.

There was the description of an online sentence parsing service, a site that would diagram any sentence you typed in. Could such a thing make me a better writer? Maybe help me figure out if I'm done sorting out an unwieldy sentence?

Or this article, speculating on how the novel might evolve to be read from a screen. The Twilight of the Books, from The New Yorker, proved to say more about the difference between an oral culture and a written one. It was interesting none the less.

This speed reading site gave guidelines for writing for the web vs writing for print. Number one for web writers:Before worrying about CONTENT, recognize and address inseparability of text, design, format and navigation. What an insult!

P. J. Grath said...

I know, Susan. I've spent long hours trying to find that book again and turning up all kinds of other stuff, some fascinating, some a complete waste of time. I just want the name of the book! Or the author's name! Someday it will come back to me, I know, but it's hard to be patient.