Skipping and Plunging
When I was a small child, my father would entertain me for extended periods by skipping smooth pebbles across the surface of a lake. I would watch as the pebbles left his hand and gracefully arced over the water, dipping to barely touch the water before rising again and again until it was out of sight. I was fascinated by the repeated arc and dip of the stone. My father tried to explain the associated physics: gravity; aerodynamics; hydrodynamics; displacement, acceleration and momentum. He patiently tried to teach me how to skip smooth stones over the water, guiding the position of my hand as I threw, but I never mastered the skill. The stones I threw always sank into the depths of the lake as they hit the water.
I was reminded of this experience recently as I was reading Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows. Carr explores the way we read research and think when using computers, especially the internet. He compares this with how we read and think about extended text in books. Neuroscience research has demonstrated the plasticity of the brain and shown how behaviour shapes the establishment of neural pathways. What we do and how we do it alters the very structure of the brain. Carr examines the change that took place in society when we moved from a predominantly aural transmission of knowledge (using stories, rhythm, chants and songs) to reading the written word as the printing process made books available. He maintains that another profound change is taking place as we move from intense focus and deep immersion in ideas captured in extended text in books towards fleeting attention across a range of text and visual images on screen. As he describes it, we are “just tripping lightly from link to link to link” – just as the stone skips across the surface of the water.
Carr is an early adopter and an enthusiastic supporter of technology; he writes about and reviews emerging technology; he applauds the many benefits and rapid access to diverse information that the internet allows. Despite this, he expresses grave concerns about the significant neurological changes happening in the brain and how this, on a personal level, is affecting his focus, attention span, acquisition of information and thinking processes. If we are to maintain the capacity to focus for extended periods of time and think deeply about abstract concepts there are indications that we need to balance the use of technology with opportunities to immerse ourselves in reading extended text and provide opportunities for deep, uninterrupted thought.
The busyness of term time and the demands associated with work do not always allow for this; however holiday periods provide extended periods where students can use time more flexibly. A variety of activities will exercise and maintain a range of brain functions. When students memorize a poem; use the internet; learn how to skip a stone across the water, they find time to plunge into the depths of learning in different ways.
© Michele Juratowitch