The Pain of Attention in a “googleable” World

Two long-suffering students, Prateek and Adriana.

Thus people habituate themselves to let things pass through their minds, as one may speak, rather than to think of them. Thus by use they become satisfied merely
with seeing what is said, without going any further. Re-view and attention, and even forming a judgment, becomes fatigue; and to lay any thing before them that requires it, is putting them quite out of their way. —Joseph Butler

Ten minutes ago, I googled “the pain of attention” + “philosopher” because I wanted to craft an eloquent response to “The New School of Google,” an opinion piece published by The Tyee. (I’ll marinate in my own irony later.)

In the article, Nick Smith asks “Why make students memorize facts easily found on the Net?” and then argues that we must change how we teach children in the age of search engines and instantaneous answers. Critical thinking skills, he proposes, will be much more valuable to a generation that will ask questions for which we do not yet have corresponding answers and quick facts.

Reader, I hardly expect you to read the original article. So, instead, I’ll do the following:

Highlights from the Article

( More accurately, the gist according to yours truly. As always, I encourage you to see for yourself)

  • Smith takes issue with the “spray and pray” model of education: Spray students with several facts for several years, and pray that enough of it sticks.
  • He wonders why the world has changed so much, yet children still do the same fill-in-the-blank worksheets he did when he was a student in the 80s.
  • A lot of what we teach is guess work, because we cannot anticipate the specific informational needs our children will have in the future.
  • The real crisis in education today is that we continue to reward students for memorizing facts that they could easily look up, while failing to require them to develop the critical thinking skills that they will [need] to make sense of a world more complex than we can imagine.

  • “Facts on their own are pretty useless.”
  • Educators equate the understanding of a subject with a student’s ability to regurgitate facts, as in standardized multiple-choice tests where a complete guess might actually be the correct response.
  • Students are likely to forget all the facts they memorized the day after they’ve scribbled it on a test.
  • “We ask for understanding, but test for memorization.”

  • Instead, we should make sure students can use information in thoughtful ways and ensure that they can navigate and evaluate everything from textbooks to blogs, and be able to explain their thought processes in a convincing way.
  • There should be more of an emphasis on problem-solving, applied thinking and justification of answers—-forcing students to know their own minds and ask themselves what they really think.
  • “…deeper understanding of content and critical thinking skills are what are needed for today’s students to make sense of what they find online, fundamental changes such as this will require a lot from everyone involved and will undoubtedly draw resistance.”

  • It’s not about simply making lessons more difficult, it’s about re-thinking education in a way that makes it more  enticing and relevant in a contemporary context.
  • Teachers should not sacrifice depth in order to force breadth, especially when in means topics are merely “covered” and not “uncovered.”

What are you fueling today?

Have I lost you? If not, forgive my condescension.

I think Smith and his interview subjects raise some very interesting points, and I wanted to comment on them by way of insightful and philosophical repartee.

(Hence, my opening paragraph.) Remember, I needed help. I sure as hell didn’t memorize that quotation.

See, I remembered considering some philosopher’s writing concerning “the pain of attention” who wrote at a time when reading certain books could be described with internet-esque perils:

The great number of books and papers of amusement, which, of one kind or another, daily come in one’s way, have in part occasioned…this idle way of reading and considering things…without the pain of attention

The fact that I didn’t remember that the philosopher was Joseph Butler is, I admit, rather troubling. Still, I was able to google it with an absolute minimum of information (again “pain of attention” + philosopher”) and am now re-considering his words in a new context.

I guess I should find it heartening that I was able to make that connection and sit here, despite my initial laziness, for long enough to convince myself (and hopefully others) that I’m not a complete bird brain (complete with the tweets).

The thing is, I’m not so sure I’m happy with my own digital savvy. I’m old enough to remember looking things up in dusty encyclopedias and asking real librarians for help with school projects, but young enough to remember when one little search bar made that habit seem like a pain in the assignment.

When no one is looking, or marking, or otherwise prodding… how much energy do I put into knowing my own mind and making sure that my logic is fundamentally sound? Now that I’ve taken the time to write some sort of reflection, the main points will stick–right?

I sure hope so.

But on a regular night, no one shames me into rethinking the very way I engage with information. I don’t have to wonder if my young and restless mind has the discipline to sit down and engage with issues as wide-reaching as the very way we educate children in our society.

I would hope that my intelligence is greater than the sum of the factoids I’ve retained over the years; that the connections I make and the mental stamina I’ve cultivated matters more than whether or not I remember the particulars of Canadian confederation.

Still, the reality is that I needed to know enough to string  together a proper search sequence, and that if I hadn’t remembered the phrase “pain of attention” and remembered that this phrase means nothing to google if not in air quotes . . . then I probably would have attempted to remember the philosopher’s name on my own, given up after a few minutes, and forgotten the gist of Smith’s article before sunrise.

[Note to self: insert brilliant conclusion or craft some kind of open-ended question that puts the onus on the commenters. If they pained themselves to reach this final sentence, that is.]

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6 thoughts on “The Pain of Attention in a “googleable” World

  1. Hey, Fab!
    I read this (the whole thing!) and enjoyed interacting with some points I hadn’t thought of before. It reminds me of math class when, by sixth grade, I owned a calculator but wasn’t allowed to use it. I could never figure out why not.
    You’re nifty.

  2. I always wonder when people say things like education hasn’t changed since the 1980s and all schools require is that kid’s memorize facts.

    I don’t think this is true now nor has it ever been. Your average grade 4 math problem requires thought not just a regurgitation of facts.

    My husband is an elementary teacher and, like in the old days, they still give half the points for showing how you came up with the answer.

    That said, I do agree that critical thinking is at an all time low. I am shocked by the “thoughts” that replicate themselves as facts across the twitterverse/blogosphere and Internet.

    Sigh… clearly I need to get that Masters degree I keep harping about.

  3. Pingback: I don’t, and I will never, know enough | The Fab Files

  4. I stumbled upon this web site on my kindle fire.
    … but it kind of came up screwy on it therefore I logged onto my PC to ask exactly why that is?
    I’ve been to hundreds of sites without a problem, but this one had dark zigzag lines throughout the responses area. Quite odd. Any explanation why?

    • Hey Nestor, thanks for letting me know. I have no idea why that’s happening, unfortunately!

      I’ve been able to see the blog okay on an iPad, and iPhone and on my mac laptop. I have no experience with Kindle fire, and I’m sincerely stumped about why it wouldn’t work on a PC.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

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