Dulling Ourselves With Back-Lighted Displays

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Slowly, but surely, our schools are moving from teaching students with pencils and paper, or blackboards and chalk, to teaching them with desktops, laptops and interactive “Smartboards” (basically a blackboard-sized, touch-screen computer).

This transition to using the same high-tech tools that deliver entertainment—including television dramas and computer games—to encourage students to read and write and learn history and mathematics and to think independently could have unintended and very negative psychological consequences.

The back-lighted computer display—with its compelling brightness and capability of delivering moving, graphic images--has become the pipeline that delivers children of all ages their music videos, YouTube videos, films, Super Mario, Wii and BrickBreaker. There is no reason to assume that this pipeline does not taint the process of learning with the same fleeting, high- energy, frivolous “feeling state” associated with much less important fun and games. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “the medium is the message.” Our sons and daughters are learning about the Constitution of the United States on a video screen indistinguishable from that which also rivets them to iCarly and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Even the pace at which images appear and disappear on a computer display is uncharted perceptual territory in the arena of student learning. With rates of Attention Deficit Disorder said to be skyrocketing, shouldn’t we consider whether rapid-fire “scenes” of information—whether provided by Google during research for a term paper or by a teacher moving a cursor on a “SmartBoard”—are training our kids’ minds to operate with the consistency of strobe lights?
The tactile nature of learning is being jettisoned without any consideration.

Remember when words we learned and important themes in history we explored and arithmetic skills we absorbed were drawn in chalk and required our teachers to show real intention as they delivered lessons? Remember when teachers couldn’t rely on bright lights and the inherent draw of a computer screen—and needed to be compelling lecturers—to command our attention? Remember when transitions to different topics didn’t happen until the blackboard was full and erasing them required real effort? Remember when students actually took notes to reinforce what they were learning, and teachers asked, “Does everyone have that down?” Remember when rubber-tipped pointers actually left smudges of real intention on blackboards, rather than laser pointers leaving a blip of red memory on our retinas?

The act of going to a library, searching for a book, and then opening it to find relevant information for completing a homework assignment was a process that required motivation and effort. Students had to literally bring themselves to the learning process—both physically and mentally. The interplay of their musculature and senses and intellect was very real. Does entering a few words in a search box really replicate that process and etch as firmly in their hearts and minds a love for learning and an ability to commit themselves to the learning process? Why don’t we have data at our fingertips to answer that question? Why have we assumed that technology in the classroom and at home is a “partner” in the learning process, rather than an impediment to the wisdom of heart, mind and body?

Author John Naisbitt had it right, of course, when he said, “We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge.”
I didn’t even have to Google his quote. I once memorized it. It really hit home with me. I can almost picture the page in the book where I underlined it. I could Google that title and give it to you now, but doing so would be a bit of a lie. See, I don’t remember the name of that book. It apparently didn’t impress me enough for me to store it away. So, in a sense, my quickly searching for it on a computer and regurgitating it for you would be fraud. It would elevate the book to a place in your mind where it doesn’t deserve to be, according to the haphazard, miraculous, impenetrable, powerful workings of my mind and yours. I don’t want to flood your mind with something accurate and accessible, but irrelevant. I forget the name of the book.

It didn’t register as unforgettable—for me. That may give you a window on which books move me most, or even on the limits of my ability to recall facts. So be it. I don’t want to fool you. I only wish that if my words truly moved you that you could hold them in your hands, rip them from a larger piece of paper, put them in your pocket and carry them around. But here we are, you and I, connected by this electronic medium, yet confined by it, too. More, we are limited by it, even defined by it. So, too, are our children. And we had better figure out exactly what that implies for the future.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. He is a New York Times best-selling author, and co-author, with Glenn Beck, of the upcoming book “The 7: Seven Wonders that Will Change Your Life.” Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com