Enemies of deep thought

25th February 2011 at 00:00

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

By Richard Watson

Allen and Unwin (pound;12.99)

3 out of 5

The theme is how our obsession with technology is leading us to become dependent on its veracity. We receive data so quickly that we scarcely have time to truly process it. This has serious implications for our thinking skills and the way our ideas develop. 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 pupils interrogate the internet for specific topics, which requires critical and evaluative skills. However, many click hyperlinks randomly for graphic appeal rather than relevance. Their familiarity with digital content encourages an indiscipline that hard text, which makes more demands on reflection and deep thinking, would never allow.

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, it still attracts heavy investment. As teachers, are we harnessing technology or driven by it?

As Richard 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."

We need to control technology, the author says, rather than being 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. Extra sleep will help release deeper thoughts.

For the author, the problem exists at both 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. Messaging diminishes our need for personal contact; we spend less time being truly "alone".

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. Our increasing dependence on Google is weakening our critical thinking, yet our fast-paced thinking demands instant responses.

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

Extra sleep would certainly 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.

This book raises more questions than answers. The problems are well stated; the remedies 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 is a speaker and consultant who helps individuals and organisations to think ahead and helps to decipher global trends. He was born in the UK and divides his time between the UK and Australia. He is married with two children.

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