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While canvassing my neighborhoods as a candidate for the local school board, I ended up discussing with a parent the difference between reading on a screen and reading a book. It’s reasonable to think about the differences at a time when young people and adults typically shift from one media environment to another about 27 times an hour. We skim for information, and are easily distracted by alerts and responses to a new email or Twitter post.
The urgency to integrate technology in classrooms has been motivated by what educators believe will most engage students, since they are already immersed in screen culture. I have heard others argue that access to technology will enable students to function as citizens. It is this idea of citizenship that matters to me because I think schools should help students use the knowledge they acquire as participants in their communities. I’d even say that I’d like school to foster in students a sense of how learning can be used in the service of the common good.
But I wonder if the allure of technology ignores some important questions about how media affects what and how students read? If researchers are correct, then youth are at best taking in bits of information without processing this information very deeply.
How students process information matters a great deal if we expect them to become citizens in a world where the very idea of “truth” has been challenged and where we need to work together with compassion, empathy, and understanding in order to create a safer world for everyone. It is important, as Maryanne Wolf acknowledges in Reader Come Home, that technologies not cause us to lose sight of the real-time relationships that demand our attention. It is important to humanize individuals who are different than we are in our efforts to make a difference in the world.
I worry that the adoption of technology often precedes deep consideration of what we want students to do and the kind of people we want them to be: citizens who are deeply invested in things that matter, who understand the value of taking on the perspectives and feelings of others, and develop a questioning habit of mind based on sustained inquiry.
I’d like to think technology can serve as a tool that fosters students’ ability to be empowered. But it is only a tool. Students also need to practice citizenship in supportive environments where students see that learning is an integral part of what it means to be human. As Martha Nussbaum reminds us, then, “It is . . . urgent right now to support curricular efforts aimed at producing citizens who can take charge of their reasoning . . . to explore and understand their own capacity for citizenship” (Cultivating Humanity, p. 301).
What kinds of curricular efforts are others making to create spaces for the kinds of reflection that authors as diverse as Maryanne Wolf, Martha Nussbaum, and Sherry Turkle call for? What are some ways to encourage our students to read deeply in order to develop a sufficient knowledge base to respond critically to what they are reading? How do others encourage students to read patiently, to resist binary thinking, and pass over into others’ experiences as empathetic readers who value complexity? How do we quiet students’ minds amid the avalanche of information that competes for their attention in what feel like increasingly brief moments of contemplation and stillness? These are pressing questions for me because democracy and citizenship require us all to have such moments of contemplation and stillness if we are to make responsible decisions.
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