Slow Thinking in a Fast World
By Sam Graham, LSU
Waiting for a friend? Get out your phone, check Facebook. Cooking dinner? Turn on the TV. Heading to the gym? Download a podcast. Settling down to work? Good luck, here’s another email.
We’re surrounded by stimulation and always have something to do. With a smart phone in our pocket, we have an infinite and always-accessible supply of mildly interesting pictures and useless websites to keep us amused.
We never look up. Always looking down, we risk being constantly distracted and forgetting to think deeply, ask big questions and contemplate.Ed Yourdon
Arguments about whether the internet and smartphones are changing the way we think and, if they do, whether this is progress or otherwise are not new. Nicholas Carr offers a pessimistic perspective in Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Steven Pinker an optimistic one in Mind Over Mass Media.
A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found almost equal optimism and pessimism among tech experts’ about the future effects of internet use on the current generation growing up with constant distraction through internet use (full report (pdf), report summary).
In the survey, many predicted that changes in thinking are simply in response to operating in a different context, and this will be advantageous in the future. This view was expressed by Jonathan Grudin, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft:
The essential skills will be those of rapidly searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information. In contrast, the ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours will not be of no consequence, but it will be of far less consequence for most people.
One anonymous respondent disagreed that deep thought would be less important and speculated that it might lead to less innovation:
Young people accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. Shallow choices, an expectation of instant gratification, a lack of patience, are likely to be common results, especially for those who do not have the motivation or training that will help them master this new environment. One possible outcome is stagnation in innovation.
Other sources worry that constant distraction will reduce our creativity. Overwhelming amounts of data can make it difficult to synthesise information. In another blog post (which I have unfortunately lost track of), one academic observed that when he first marked students’ essays 20 years ago, he found himself constantly telling students to provide evidence for their thesis statements. Now, he finds himself constantly telling students to provide a thesis for all their data. With an abundance of information, students were seduced into not connecting data together to form opinions. That is, they were not thinking deeply.
Deep thinking is, I believe, more important than ever. In the developed world, we are fortunate to be rich enough to be able to ask fundamental questions about how we live on both a personal and societal level. At the same time, with the threat of large-scale and irreversible environmental damage looming, we are unfortunate enough to need to be asking these questions.
As educators, we therefore need to make sure our students can and do think deeply. But how can we do this?
1. Talk about the importance of letting go of constant stimulation.
One of my first-semester philosophy lecturers pleaded with us to make time amongst making friends, churning out essays and playing sports for contemplation. It was perhaps a futile call in the week after Freshers’ week, but it planted a seed that continues to grow.
2. Set reading lists
With little guidance as to appropriate sources, students I see in the LSU often resort to desperately skimming and scanning large quantities of information in the hopes of striking it lucky with a few relevant and seemingly-supportive sentences. Often, their understanding of the texts and analysis of them is partial.
The Citation Project has found that students in the USA generally cite from the first or second pages of academic journal articles and rely on quoting and paraphrasing single sentences rather than summarising larger ideas, indicating they hunt for facts rather than read, absorb and slowly consider their sources.
Reading lists with a limited number of core texts (1) reduces the need for students to be constantly skimming and scanning in a desperate search for relevant information and (2) indicates the importance of engaging deeply with the text.
3. Take a balanced approach to the gamification of education.
The constant stimulation in gamified learning makes contemplation difficult, so should be used as a teaching resource rather than a teaching replacement.
The gamification of learning seeks to provide extrinsic motivators to learners through giving points, displaying progress and introducing competition.
Websites like the Khan Academy have been praised for engaging students through gamification. Critics, though, say that students simply respond to recorded lectures and exercises rather than create and self-discover. While it effectively teaching procedures, it fails to teach another important element of each subject: understanding why these procedures apply and why they are important.
4. Emphasise analytic work over memorisation or simple mastery of procedure
Make assignments that require students to analyse others’ ideas and defend their own. Original thought can’t be Googled. Giving students opportunities to stop and think – indeed requiring it of them – can be a countermeasure to constant stimulation and distraction.
5. If all else fails, make them drive tractors
Peter Clague, principal of Kristin School in New Zealand, wrote that all teenagers should drive tractors instead of cars. The slow speed of a tractor wouldn’t just be safer, it would also give them time to think and look around, and the noise would mean that they couldn’t listen to music or podcasts.
Tractors might be impractical in Vietnam, so we should perhaps buy our students a worker’s three-wheeled motorbike. And maybe one for ourselves, too.