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Review - Books - Mind over digital matter

Future Minds: how the digital age is changing our minds, why this matters and what we can do about it

By Richard Watson

Nicholas Brealey Publishing


The subject at the heart of this book is one that should concern everyone involved in education, namely the effect of digital technology on our thinking and critical skills.

This book is a follow-up to Richard Watson's Future Files and is certainly thought-provoking. Chapter titles effectively encapsulate some of the issues: "The Rise of the Screenager", "Pre-Teens: An Apple for Every Teacher", "Thinking about Thinking" and perhaps most illustrative of all, "The Sex Life of Ideas".

The theme of the book is how our obsession with technology is leading us to become dependent on its veracity. We are receiving data so quickly that we scarcely have any time to process it. This has serious implications for our thinking skills and thus for the way our ideas develop.

Watson points out that our increasingly digitised world has affected thinking styles significantly. Information at the touch of a button has created a Pandora's Box, releasing endless possibilities, instigating an insatiable thirst that is spiralling out of control.

As teachers, we regularly set tasks where children scour the internet for specific topics, but these require critical and evaluative skills. However, pupils' response often reveals precisely what the author is talking about: many click hyperlinks randomly, for graphic appeal rather than for relevance. Nowadays because children are so familiar with digital content, they become impatient with hard text and cannot give it the deeper thinking and reflection it requires.

And it is precisely this deeper thinking, and creating a climate in which it can prosper, which should concern educationalists. While ICT has not proved a panacea for academic progress, the author points out that it still attracts heavy investment. Yet visual content might be purely "eye-candy", designed simply to keep children's attention. As teachers, are we harnessing technology or driven by it? Does it enhance and extend children's thinking?

As Watson asserts: "We have created a society in which schools teach children how to pass exams but they don't generally teach children how to think." There are exceptions, such as the primary schools that do well in league tables but also provide classes in philosophy. But are these isolated cases? And what obstacles lie ahead?

We need to control technology, rather than be ruled by it, to re-evaluate its uses and to be more critical. Quiet times, where the mobile is switched off, will allow us to think creatively, be less inhibited in our thoughts and have fresh experiences to stimulate us. Extra sleep will help release deeper thoughts. We need distance and space from the workplace to free our minds.

For the author, the problem exists at child and adult level. Increased time spent using technology reduces time for interacting with children and weakens relationships. Equally, if children are absorbed in handheld devices, interaction with peers will be restricted.

Digitised information increases dependence on access to phones, laptops and PDAs, but this comes at a cost: processing endless messages and trivia means more time is spent receiving and transmitting information at an ever-earlier age. Messaging diminishes our need for personal contact. We spend less time being truly "alone". If children see their peers and family members absorbed in social networking activities and its trivia, they are certain to be influenced by this.

What we require, says the author, are opportunities for deeper thinking and reflection. Equally, we need to make connections. The mind absorbs swathes of low-level data while seldom truly processing any; there is not time to develop reflective, deep-thinking skills. Our increasing dependence on search engines such as Google is weakening our critical thinking, yet our fast-paced thinking demands instant responses.

Again, the author warns that the decreasing amount of free playtime diminishes opportunities for children to be creative, using their own imaginations to structure activities. Play is only truly integrated within the early-years curriculum and thereafter the "formal" curriculum takes precedence. We may be in danger of creating passive learners in our balanced curriculum, a world away from the author's "reflective thinker".

Some of his solutions seem optimistic, and others more common sense. Switching off phones would create time for the mind to wander and reflect. Teachers who constantly monitor surreptitious use of mobiles would yearn for this, but it seems increasingly unlikely.

Extra sleep would benefit many pupils, but whether it could be effectively promoted is debatable. Teaching critical skills and philosophy would be a welcome addition to the curriculum, but fitting these into an overcrowded timetable might prove difficult. We are promised a less prescriptive curriculum, but such initiatives are notoriously capricious and, once standards become an issue, prescription will follow.

The author is incisive in his ability to decipher future needs, but this book provides more questions than answers. The problems are well stated, the solutions are less clear. Controlling technology lies at the heart of the solution and, as educationalists, we need to be aware of the dangers of our current indulgences. We can do little more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Richard Watson

Richard Watson is a writer, speaker and consultant on future trends, particularly on how technology will change our lives. His previous book was Future Files: A Brief History of the Next 50 Years.


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