Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Our Brains Extended

True to form I am behind in my periodical reading. I just finished the March 2013 Educational Leadership which included an article that provoked a great deal of thought and discomfort. Marc Prensky's "Our Brains Extended" discusses the shift we are undergoing to an increasingly technological society where our schools need to change to meet the growing challenge presented. He proposes that the Common Core State Standards are a 20th century program that does not meet the needs of the students of the future. His future schools include a focus on some soft skills which are discounted in the CCSS.

His first pronouncement, "reading is no longer the number one skill students need to take from school to succeed. Technology is." (p. 23) demonstrates his ideal curricular shift. Since technology can read the material to you, he proposes that reading is a skill of the past, much like hunting. Clearly he has not watched the gun debate in America today to see the hunters out in force refusing to allow gun control to be discussed. If he had he would recognize that hunting is not a thing of the past. Furthermore, hunting was never taught in schools, so the comparison is misguided to start with. While text to voice may be constantly improving, to minimize reading seems strange. If your technology breaks down, how do you propose fixing it? If it doesn't work you can't have it read how to fix it to you. If you are incapable of reading, how do you know that the technology has not been taken over and is not censoring the reading? Although tools such as highlighters and sticky note programs are available to annotate electronic text, going back through them is far more challenging than going through paper text. I know that many people are happy with their e-readers, but research shows that we are less likely to stay focused and learn though e-readers than through paper texts. Because they can "instantly link to related topics" students wander off and do not have the time or inclination to finish assignments (p. 24). True this engagement may be able to be taught, but maintaining focus continues to be one of those soft skills that separates students.

Next he questions "'age appropriate' curriculum" because students are "exposed to increasingly sophisticated information online." (p. 23) First, exposure to increasingly complex material does not confirm an ability to apply increasingly mature, thoughtful analysis, discrimination or evaluation. The exposure can even hurt the psyche of fragile young minds. While I am not a fan of censorship, I do believe that parents and, in their de facto role as such, schools need to monitor and limit access to what children are exposed to based on the developmental level of the individual. On a related strand, Mr. Prensky proposes that because a student can use technology to answer college level questions such material does not need to be taught. The faulty reasoning here is the confusion between being able to access it, read it or have it read to them, and being able to understand it. I am dating myself, but I remember the Hooked on Phonics commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. There was a kindergartner proclaiming that he could read at the college level. Just because he could read did not mean he could understand. Reading requires comprehension which is based on vocabulary and prior knowledge. Being able to read the words does not equate with understanding the passage. Similarly, exposure to complex or sophisticated material does not equate with being able to understand the message, especially the hidden messages of propaganda, advertising and people out to misguide the consumer of information. These skills which he does identify as important are learned on a continuum that skilled educators utilize within their existing curriculum. They don't simply show a rated R movie in elementary school because some kids have seen it.

In his suggestion to rethink the curriculum, he suggests removing the emphasis on calculations, after all computers and calculators are faster and more accurate than we are. Then, however, he says we need to teach "students to focus on whether the answer makes sense." (p. 24) Yes, we need to teach this, but if a student cannot do a calculation, he cannot determine if an answer makes sense. Many a student I have worked with has told me the answer must be right because the calculator said so, unaware that halving a number cannot result in a bigger number. Without basic arithmetical fluency and understanding, estimation is impossible. Although our New York state algebra test requires access to a graphing calculator, I would argue that needing to use it for anything other than a trig function chart probably means you do not understand the class well enough to get credit for it.

He argues that short emails and twitters are important to teach, misunderstanding students' inability to be able to summarize as a lack of "emphasis on conciseness," rather than struggling with a higher level thinking skill (p. 24). Similarly he believes that we must teach to the tests such as the SAT, ACT and PISA and that technology is the ideal tool to do so. Yes, apps are available to do study prep, but his assertion that the tests should not be given until the student has mastered the app, fails to appreciate the purpose of the test. College Board, SAT's publisher, states "the purpose of the SAT is to measure a student's potential to succeed in college."  (
It is designed to be a summative assessment, a spot check of skills, not a piece of formative information that indicates if more study is required.

Prensky argues that technology is not "a new way to do old things," but rather a tool that enhances our thinking (p. 25). Then he showcases an example of not needing to buy a travel guide but using his phone as one. Yes, technology can change the speed and complexity of action and we need to build mental schema and strategies for using the tools, but in no way does this negate the virtue or relevance of traditional thinking patterns. After all while there are some increasingly complex things in the world, many basic things are not evolving, toilets for example. He asserts that with supercomputer time available for sale by the second, we can all do anything. Supercomputer time has been purchasable for a long time, but that availability is limited in time when it may be used and the cost is not insubstantial. He argues that with tools like Twitter we are all free to have access to information about unfolding events around the world. Look how well that worked for CNN and the first Boston Marathon "suspects."

Prensky argues to revision school curriculum rather than the format, structure or timing. Curriculum debates have existed from time immortal. People are now experimenting with flipped and blended instruction (format). Pendulum swings over the structure of schools has not stopped- open classroom design, individual rooms, flexible age groups, multi age classrooms, middle schools, K-8 buildings, community based, nature based,... the list goes on (structure). Do we continue with the agricultural school timing of post harvest to planting time and the standard 6.5 hours per day or do we go to year round schooling or extended day programs? Should high schools start later than elementary schools (timing)? Revisioning merely the curriculum seems like a packaging change.

In his plan there would be a trio of subjects around which learning would occur: effective thinking, effective action and effective relationships. He characterizes our current approach to thinking instruction as "random, haphazard and inconsistent" (p. 26). Thinking would be the scaffolding upon which learning would hang. This is a chicken and egg argument. You cannot seriously learn without rigorous thinking and you cannot teach thinking without something substantive to think about. Various people have put forth thinking continuums- Bloom and Marzano to name a few. These levels are not a straight line but a recursive process. You think deeply about basic things as a kindergartner. A high school senior uses the same continuum to learn about more complex things. Good teachers do not approach thinking skills in a random, haphazard or inconsistent manner, but in a thoughtful and measured way.

Prensky sees action as a very community oriented manner. The civic duty is to improve the community. For a nation that cannot get 50% of its registered voters to vote, this is a monumental challenge. While I admire the idea of basing instruction on civic projects, I know that there are only so many projects out there. When a project becomes a look it up on YouTube and repeat activity, the thinking piece is removed. Discovery and constructive learning play a role in instruction but they must play an appropriate role that encourages the opportunity to cover an adequate amount of material.

His third branch of the curriculum, effective communication, seems to reiterate the iconic book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. Communication, ethics and citizenship would play center stage here. The classics would be used to teach these skills. My belief is that we teach the classics for this very purpose. We ask kids to write and speak to for this reason. Although it switches the name of the classes, this is not necessarily a change.

If Marc wants to revision American schooling, perhaps he should start by acknowledging that the technology is grounded in knowledge that people possess. Without a broad background, they cannot Google good questions. If the only knowledge I have is from technology, what happens when it fails or what happens when I need something quickly? Part of learning is automaticity of information. Certain things we know so well and quickly they are automatically accessed. Our pace will be erratic and substandard if we must look it all up. While technology is a tool that enhances our abilities, it does not replace them.

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