The Dumbest Generation

I have read several books lately that comment on adolescent and tween use of technology. I try to spend time with a range of resources both pro and con. I don’t think the “fan boy” model is productive and argue advocates must be careful to approach dissenting views with an open mind.

I am scheduled to teach a course on online learning experiences for K-12 students this summer and I am seriously considering assigning “The Dumbest Generation” (Bauerlein) and Grown Up Digital (Tapscott) as reading material to place teachers “between” some of the arguments that have been advanced.

Here are some comments after reading “The Dumbest Generation”. As is always the case, what follows is my interpretation of what someone else has written. There is always some danger in interpreting the position taken by someone else.

Bauerlein’s book (The Dumbest Generation) offers a useful cautionary position which seems to suggest that left to their own devices and penchant for peer to peer socialization, many adolescents will focus on the trivial and in doing so will reduce opportunities to learn from adults and the world around them. I am assuming the extreme position was taken for effect – arguments that propose a modest shift tend to be ignored.

While Bauerlein seems to agree that the Internet offers access to potentially useful information and services, adolescent use of the Internet does not tend to take advantage of these services. Instead, adolescents use the Internet to increase their involvement with their peers and with topics valued by their peers. This increase in peer socialization comes at the cost of maturing factors such as involvement with adults, adult values, and adult institutions.

The books seems to use a “one would think” type of logic. One would think with the opportunities available to them adolescents would be achieving at a much higher level. Data from multiple sources seem to indicate that this is not the case. Hence, the way adolescents spend their time (i.e., online activities) must be at fault.

Rather than deal with some of these claims, there is a concern that institutions, educators, and parents attack the messenger. The messenger is wrong because the data used in support of the concerns are argued to rely on the “rote memory” of factual information. Counter argument – most text books are much more sophisticated and offer a context for the facts that are advanced. Bauerlein uses the word curmudgeon – people who express concern risk the danger of being labeled a curmudgeon. I thought only my wife used that word.

The problem is not largely a fault of what happens in classrooms, but what happens outside of educational settings. What happens outside does not inform what happens in classrooms and what is worse may operate to devalue classroom learning.

Reading, of any type, appears to be an area of greatest neglect. Data from the American Time Use survey (page 49) suggest 15-24 year-olds read for 8 minutes a day despite having 5 hours of free time.

Some data I find encouraging are also dismissed. 30% of adolescents, according to a National Schoolboard survey, write their own blogs. Bauerlein dismisses this as a focus on teen culture. I just don’t know many teen bloggers and think what I regard as blogging is not what is credited in the NSBA study. (my previous post)   –  I have always wondered if Facebook posts are regarded as blogging.

Bauerlein attacks educators who seem to feel that any screen time is educational. If screen time involves problem solving and collective intelligence and requires sophisticated technical skills, just where is the evidence that all of the hypothesized benefits create any payoff. A particular argument, the advancement of a clever adolescent who has done something remarkable, is particularly flawed because it offers little information on what is typical. Bauerlein appears particularly skeptical of educators who champion adolescent behavior as beneficial instead of arguing that it is, in fact, adolescent. By failing to contrast more mature forms of technology use with adolescent technology use, these educators offer a confusing and counter productive picture to everyone.

There are some things I do not like about the way the book is written. It seemed poorly structured and repetitive to me. The book seems to end with a lament for a proposed decline in a focus on the humanities in higher education. To me this is a second concern and one that was not balanced by a corresponding concern with similar arguments regarding other areas.

What is my personal reaction?

1) The path (evidently not taken) to get us out of this situation was not apparent to me. The book focuses on problems, but seems to offer nothing other than a return to 1970s experiences as a remedy. I do think educators should involve and not avoid the tools of the participatory web. What about using these tools to demonstrate reading/writing/analytical thinking, etc.? Given the potential (acknowledged) of these tools and the need for adults to both function in an adult fashion and expose adolescents to more mature experiences, wouldn’t this seem like the most productive approach to take. I think more educators should demonstrate adult blogging and scaffold adolescent experiences with participatory web tools. Educators should be in a position to gain attention for mature applications. Parents would be as well, but I tend to focus on educators.

2) I feel the need to acknowledge my wife’s complaint that I reflect on my own personal behavior. She keeps bringing up my active avoidance of the study of history as an undergraduate and graduate student. I also do not read hard copy newspapers. Not be argumentative, but I don’t think specific limitations are not the issue. I read and write a great deal – I just pick the areas and the topics.

I will post this and then make the effort to add what other bloggers have to say on this topic.

Will Richardson’s post on this book

Cool Cat Teacher post

Academic Librarian (very comprehensive)

Don Tapscott