Dec 13 2010

Scholarly Essay

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Is technology making us stupid? The deskilling of Canadian students

In the industrial age, mass production and speedy turnaround replaced craftsmanship and in-depth knowledge of certain processes as desirable qualities in the work force. The word deskilling became a popular term associated with the sudden reduction in the need for skilled workers. According to Economic theorist Braverman, manifestations of deskilling in the workforce included a decline in craftsmen, increasing separation of mental and physical labour, declining levels of training and increased interchangeability of labour (Roger, 1987).

This term has now found its way into the jargon of education specialists linked to our youth’s lack of ability to do the simplest tasks without the aid of a machine, more specifically a computing device. I will use computer as a generic word to include the many devices we find in everyday life such as cellphones, calculators, electronic agendas and computers of all sizes. Jokes and anecdotes abound that lament and ridicule today’s workers as being unable to make change without a cash register, figure out what 10% of their body weight is without a calculator or figure roughly what the loan payments on a $40000 car might be without the aid of the bank’s web-based loan calculator. No one seems to know the capitals of each province in my grade 9 Geography class but they can show where to find the information on Wikipedia. And they can certainly find an app on their cellphone that can answer any question I throw at them. It’s no wonder Nick Carr (2008) wrote an essay called “Is Google making us stupid?” lamenting the loss of our ability to think. He quotes playwright Richard Foreman in explaining that as we use computers to acquire a great deal of non-contextual knowledge, we seem to lose our ability to use that knowledge. “…we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin” (Carr, 2008) Those of us who remember learning how to calculate percentages and can figure out the equivalent in kilometres of the mileage from Montreal to Ottawa shake our heads at how little digital natives seem to know about real life. Have they no skills? Have computers made them stupid?

Micheal Apple has devoted quite a bit of research to the introduction of educational technology and its effects on teachers. He contends that teachers become marginalized as they no longer can use their tried and true teaching tools and methods. Moreover, they have not received sufficient training in the use of technology to integrate it meaningfully into their lessons. Apple worries that our students are being asked to work in a technologically-driven society without being taught critical literacy skills to interpret the rules of this new society. He calls for Social Literacy to be taught as a means to make learning meaningful. Before we jump on the bandwagon and start throwing education funds at teaching some new kind of literacy, we need to analyze exactly what is meant by deskilling or being “stupid” in the context of these authors’ works.

In his Technium blog post, Will we let Google make us smarter?, Kelly (2008) responds to Nick Carr’s essay by calling Carr a self-admitted worrywart with mostly anecdotal data to make his point and only half a story to tell on the effects of using technology on our cognitive levels. Kelly distinguishes between stupidity, IQ levels and loss of certain skills. Briefly, he proposes that in a sense, Google is making people smarter (or at least no less intelligent) as it allows us to move to critical thinking rather than just using our mind as a giant database to store facts. Kelly refutes Carr’s argument that Nietzsche started to think differently as he moved from handwriting to the use of a typewriting machine in his older, infirm years. Carr contends that the technology altered Nietzsche’s thinking. Kelly states that advanced age and infirmity probably had more to do with the changed perspective, but does concede that technology has forced us to change our thinking processes. For instance, as we’ve moved from orality to writing (one of the greatest technological shifts known to man), we have been able to let go of old ways of thinking, speaking and processing information. The simple fact that we can now edit our words as we compose directly onto a computer has radically improved our capacity for speed and a more polished finished product. Very industrial-age virtues, to be sure. Our ability to conduct research from our own living room, to read the thoughts of others without waiting for a publisher to compile them and (through the magic of hypertext) the amazing ability to let our reading take us in many directions, no longer linear, have had significant impact on our thought processes (Bolter, 2001).

In considering what was lost (certainly not IQ, in his mind), Kelly (2008) writes:

“We are about to make the next big switch. Billions of people on earth will stampede to join. Something will certainly be lost. It would serve us all better if that loss was better defined, and it was paired with a better defined sense of what we gain.”

Therefore, as we admit that technology is indeed changing our way of thinking and doing, without value judgment as to whether the good old days were better than these current times, we need to move forward and examine how we can help students use technology judiciously to add meaning to their knowledge.

Historically, teachers have been very busy providing knowledge and interweaving messages about facts so as to make them meaningful to the student. But as teachers are no longer the primary source of knowledge, our role has to evolve. This evolution of teaching approaches does not have to be without the benefit of existing learning theories. Theories advanced by Vygotzky as still valid in this century and have served in the elaboration of Constructivist learning theory.

Vygotzky, a Russian Jew, tried to explain how we learn. His theories, although not without criticism, fell nicely into line with the political climate of his time. As a result of his background and ethnic struggle, Vygotzky saw cultural factors as huge determinants of what and how we learn. He theorized that children learn from society first, through the dialogue they hear and participate in, and later rehearse what was learned privately with self-talk. To Vygotzky, the teacher was not only the source of knowledge, but also the guide that moves the student into what he called the Zone of Proximal Development. The ZPD is where the child learns as he is obliged to work at a level that challenges his current understanding and knowledge. Once knowledge is acquired, it becomes internalized. I mention Vygotzky’s theories at this time because it is important to illustrate how very different this style of learning is from the traditional Rote learning that permeated the classroom in Vygotzky’s time and can still be found in many classrooms around the world, including our own. Respected learning theorist Ausubel, stated that Rote learning seemed a good way for someone to just get by in his lessons. It did not provide an opportunity for meaningful learning. Most importantly, I am trying to illustrate that the role of the teacher must change to that of facilitator in order to help the student reach the ZPD. Gone are the days of the “Sage on the stage”, now welcome the “guide on the side”.

The second lesson we want to retain from Vygotzky is that culture plays an important role, not only in the transmission of knowledge but importantly, in the reception and retention of knowledge. By this, I mean that the student will interpret what is important to retain and how he associates concepts depending on his cultural setting, what theorists call Context.

Merging these two Vygotzkian concepts, it is essential that the teacher no longer act as the purveyor of data, but rather teaches how to access knowledge and how to determine what is to be retained. We would call that teaching critical thinking skills. This role has become even more complex as the computer, which now acts as the primary source of knowledge, lacks the ability to provide the cultural context required for students to understand what they are learning.

Let us now turn to Constructivism, which tells us that knowledge is to be constructed, not just handed over. And here is where meta-search engines such as Google confuse the mind. Perhaps there is something to the idea that Google is making us less skilled if we look at these search engines as depriving us of the opportunity (and skill) to construct knowledge. Think of a Google search as a 2000 piece puzzle someone has dumped on the table. You know you have to make sense of it all, but if you are not given a) an example of the finished picture, b) a method on how to begin (typically the frame goes first, like creating a context) and c) some advice on matching colour and piece shapes, then you will just end up with a lot of pieces of cardboard that don’t make sense. Continuing this analogy into the classroom, the teacher could show you a completed puzzle (the equivalent of stating expectations and showing an exemplar) but then you couldn’t say you knew how to do a puzzle. It’s learning the process that counts in constructing knowledge, a lot more that the final product. Unfortunately, our educational system puts too much value on the product. Most assessments measure if you learned the lesson, which is often an arbitrary set of instructions that match the textbook that was chosen by the teaching institution (Leblanc, 2003), not whether you can transfer the knowledge to other aspects of your life (also known as Situational Cognition). It is not unusual for students to just want the instructions on how to pass the assessment. I seems our assessment system is more about Behaviourist theory than Constructivism.

Returning to the puzzle analogy, it is unfortunate that many teachers while trying to allow students to construct knowledge seem to fall short when faced with the intrusion of the computer as an additional variable in the process of transferring knowledge. They often see it as competition. Teachers who avoid computer use in their class have been known to ask: “What if the kids know more than I do?”. I answer: “You can expect that they will. And reward them for teaching you something!” In Vygotzkian theory, it is the exchange between peers that causes them to move towards the ZPD. Although Vygotzky advocated that the peers should be of different levels, the more experienced teaching the novice, I think this process is not unidirectional. Why wouldn’t each party learn from the other, whether by design or by chance?

In his book, Things that makes us smarter, Norman defends the merits of technology as it influences our ability to progress, to create and to advance new ideas. To simplify his explanation, he divides cognition into two major categories, experiential and reflective. He maintains that although being actively involved in a process allows us to gain expert knowledge it cannot replace the required element of reflection – the ability to internalize what we’ve experienced and formulate new knowledge, which are the basis of creativity and growth. Norman cautions us about our current educational system’s emphasis on experiential learning stating that “Experiential mode confuses action for thought.”  He adds that virtual experiences such as simulations and computer-based games do not provide the benefits of actual experience as “vicarious experience through multimedia does not substitute active participation in developing expertize” (Norman, 1994, p. 17).

Norman also addresses the question of why technology provides us with so much information that seems so disconnected from the “real world”. He explains that science and technology are best suited to data that can be quantified and measured. The result is that it “provides a mind-set that artificially elevates some aspects of life and ignores others, not based upon their real importance but rather by the arbitrary condition of whether they can be measured scientifically and objectively by today’s tools” (Norman, 1994, p. 15).

Another interesting observation in Norman’s research is that we all learn best from the process of sharing knowledge. He discusses Distributed Cognition in the light of how computers really prevent the user from receiving the benefits of information that is verbally transmitted directly from peer to peer, as well as the vicarious learning that occurs from listening to parties trying to sort out a problem. Because computers can only provide an answer to a question in a linear mode, it is up to the learner to search for the links between data and its uses. When we learn through discussion, in a social cognition fashion, we gain the ability to receive information that has been processed by all the points of view of the parties engaged in that learning. Vygotzky would add that we gain the experience and knowledge of a whole culture in such an exchange. This is so much more powerful than all the data one very large memory bank can provide.

Having examined the context of a technologically enhanced society, where children gain knowledge from a machine (as an intermediary), we can affirm the importance of the teacher in the role of guide, the sharing of knowledge between peers and the need for a balance between Experiential and Reflective learning. Let us return to Apple’s ideas on the effects of the introduction of technology in the classroom.

Apple’s study of labour conditions in classroom settings prompted him to use the word deskilling as a way to describe the separation of “conception from execution” of the lessons teachers created. He contends that this loss of control brings about an atrophy of certain skills and ultimately disengagement and burn-out. What is pertinent to this essay is that the methods used to teach in our modern classes are certainly influenced by the legacy of the introduction of technological integration into all curriculum. You don’t have to be a teacher to teach this (Apple & Jungck, 1990) describes a day in a Computer Literacy class where the curriculum had been created by the Math department of the school in an effort to standardize and facilitate its delivery by inexperienced (in the subject matter) teachers. The description, while it seems comical today, is telling of the disconnect between new forms of knowledge and traditional teaching techniques. Students were given daily worksheets to fill out while they watched videos and hoped vainly each day that they would finally get to experience working on the computers. The outcome of the day clearly illustrates the fear of losing control teachers experience when they are asked to teach something they are unfamiliar with and have had no hand in creating. This situation exemplifies how constructivist learning was set aside to fulfill a different agenda – that of answering the demands of parents concerned with readying their children for the workforce. Clearly, no learning took place in that classroom. The authors comment that although most students were attentive to the lessons, they most likely only did so under the assumption that successful completion of this course would allow them to move to the next level in Math class. They also recount the teachers’ actions and attitude, going from cautious enthusiasm to disengagement and finally, boredom and frustration that nothing was being accomplished in these lessons. Apple and Jungck point out that teachers knew intuitively that they must discuss and explain the information being presented, but because of time constraints and their lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, they were unable to get beyond the lower level knowledge of knowing the what and how of the curriculum (what we would describe as knowledge-based questions). Students were not given the opportunity to construct knowledge by manipulating information and putting it into a context that could be understood and transferred.

Apple sees this episode, and education in Western society today, as the result of a “restoration of the Right” policies driven by the economics of free market. “Corporations now firmly control both the media and the production of school textbooks. In this control they have established a knowledge industry that emphasizes the traditional family, free-market economic policy, a narrow view of patriotism, Christianity, and a business needs-driven school curriculum” (The Freire Project, n.d.). While the intention has been to prepare students for the demands of the 21st century workforce by teaching them computer literacy, it has in effect overly focused their learning thereby depriving them of many of the skills required in day to day living. Apple advocates for Social or Critical pedagogy where students are taught to expose the driving forces behind what they are learning and to examine how our current immersion in technology is changing society. It comes down to a simple directive – students should be taught to question, to critique, to analyze and make links – not just accept knowledge at face value as if they were sponges mopping up the waters of a tsunami of information.

In The new technology: Is it part of the solution or part of the problem in education? (1991) Apple states that technological changes are really changes in relationships. Is this not the crux of the question that I posed in the title of this article? Is the reason we perceive today’s students as being less intelligent since the introduction of technology in the classroom not as simple as acknowledging that there has been a change in our relationship to technology? Once we accept that this shift has occurred, we can start to understand its implications in education today. Teachers must evolve their methods to include digital literacy, critical thinking skills and a return to distributed learning and constructivism. Traditional methods of assessment must evolve to consider the many literacies and new skill set needed to function in a technologically charged environment. Without these shifts, students are no further ahead than if they were to sit in a room with every bit of information known to man and be expected to come out years later fully equipped to take their place as functional and productive citizens, only to find the world has changed immeasurably while they were in their learning incubator. This is the stuff of experiments, not real life.


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