‘Mined’ Over Matter

Bear with me as I take my neural pathways for a walk.

First off, The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a fantastically funny book. I enjoyed it to the point of envy and I hope that my first literary accomplishment can muster the same laudable final product. If you are unfamiliar with Weir’s story, it follows astronaut Mark Watney, who through a series of mishaps is abandoned on and then retrieved from Mars. The book follows Watney’s physical and emotional roller coaster as he fights to determine the best ways to solve very existential problems – how to release carbon dioxide, how to create water, and how to grow potatoes in his own shit – until his indomitable, spunky spirit can reconnect with the world (ie Earth). SPOILER: He survives and thrives, appendages and sense of humor intact. The book poses bigger philosophical questions regarding self determination, free will, and man’s right to choose. Immerse yourself.

Secondly, I am an admirer of Barbara Oakley and have been following her for many years. Among the many concepts she explains in her course, Learning How to Learn, is the difference between focused and diffuse thinking. I’m a huge proponent of giving kids time and space to solidify concepts after sustained investment in focused thinking, not only because my best ideas are spawned while sitting on the toilet, but because the data say so. “Focus your brain on something new. Take a break to let it stew. Apply a drop to your new brew.” (Shakespeare, I’m not, but that little ditty is the epitome of wisdom. You’re welcome.)

I know the above is true, yet the ferocity with which it hit was unparalleled as I devoured Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain. (Parenthetically, you could read it and stop there. In itself, The Shallows was very interesting and thought provoking. A worthwhile corollary would be The Talking Ape by Robbins Burling and Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith. The trifecta is a creative investigation in communication and consciousness.)

Why did Carr’s book blow my mind? Well, it deconstructs language – written language, as a technology. The benefits and disadvantages were exposed, explored, and exported. Some forms of written language can foster deep contemplation and internalization of information which ultimately – and obviously – leads to new understandings and innovations. But, it implies there has been sufficient focused thinking to allow for a certain level of comprehension and a built in mechanism for diffuse thinking to enable great strides in creativity, approach, and application. (You can’t apply what you don’t know, and you can’t approach a new problem before you have solved the original one.) Diffuse thinking necessitates restful distraction from the initial focus. Here’s the rub, our version of technology does not allow for ‘restful distraction’ – as anyone who is plugged in can attest.

Preceding a most desirable distraction, however, is preliminary understanding. We take it for granted and often assume that if a topic has been broached, it has somehow osmosed into a person’s memory files. Not so. When information is cursorily scanned (and subsequently disrupted via hyperlinks, ads, and anything else that draws attention away from the task), there are no lingering memories to facilitate synaptic connections. There’s no way to extract useful meaning from the information mining. There is no attentional investment, no effortful thought, no ‘holding on’ for future reference to decipher the mysteries of life. Carr reminds us of this stark fact.

Rather than rant about the ways in which technology is being misused, making us dumber and less human(e), I will return to Mark Watney. As an astronaut, Watney invested years studying, learning basic information that he was able to apply creatively (and ingeniously) when prompted with the novel (Get it? Novel. Haha!) situation of being stranded on our neighboring planet. It was only because he made the effortful leap to study, not scan, that Watney survived.

For many years I maintained that students should be allowed to access notes and the web during exams. I believed that they shouldn’t ‘waste’ time memorizing facts, so long as they knew how to apply the facts. Yet, I have spent the past two decades teaching students who seem to be increasingly incapable of deductive reasoning and are bereft of the capacity for deep thought. The more I scaffold, the more scaffolds they need. They have solidified an admirable sense of learned helplessness, and I am left wondering (and worrying) about our future as a civilization and as a species.

The precursor to application is internalization. Memorization is the ultimate form of internalization. Perhaps we should be working on how to memorize so recall is easy, effortless, and enduring thereby allowing students to solve complex problems – the kind that Mark Watney had to figure out. There needs to be a balance. We need to find a way. Just saying.

What are you reading these days?


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