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Suzanne Fields
Suzanne Fields
29 Aug 2014
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Taking Swipes at the Smartphone Generation

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The digital age continues to confuse and confound a generation of adults who have learned to participate in it, but lack the ability for what Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley called "doin' what comes naturally."

We still think a microwave is for heating coffee and thawing frozen food, never the name of a computer game. We weren't born to researching on Wikipedia or Googling for facts. Our fingers can text, but often strike two letters on the Android, making for some strange communications. We despair of catching up with the tools at hand and wonder what it all means for the future of our children.

With the wisdom that comes with age we question whether fast learning on a computer equals the understanding that comes from slower study in books. (We're suspicious of books on Kindle, too.) When teachers try to make learning fun with computers, will children grow up to take on the hard tasks for thinking things out? Inquiring minds want to know.

The latest fad for teaching is the video game Minecraft, a Lego-like building game for learning how to build structures. It made a splash as a way to teach students how to "dig deep." One private school teacher for 12-year olds uses it to design buildings for an ancient Roman apartment house.

"It's an accurate way to build things without just having to write down all this stuff," one child tells The Washington Post. "You still have to make floor plans, but it's more interactive and more fun."

But this approach enables a computer to drive the course. Is this how we want to take the kids in a virtual tour of ancient Rome? Virgil would not approve, and you don't have to be (an) ancient to wonder whether these children would travel deep into their imaginations or understand why Dido was disconsolate when Aeneas left her behind.

Besides, who said learning has to be fun? Learning is hard. Dancing letters and images can excite Sesame Street toddlers, but once they learn to read, the letters stop jumping and they have to shape up to learn the hard stuff, the meaning of metaphors, how to write a simile.

Joel Levin, co-founder of a company that helps schools set up Minecraft, hopes to work Minecraft into history, math, reading and art classes.

An eighth-grader who plays the Minecraft game "Survival," which includes zombies and creepers, talks about how "cool" it is. "You can shape your own world." Cool in the classroom is exactly what we're suspicious of.

Hanna Rosin, writing in Atlantic magazine about "touch-screen learning," says two-thirds of children ages 4 to 7 have used an iPhone: "Touch technology follows the same technology as shaking a rattle or knocking down a pile of blocks." The child swipes, something happens. Norman Rockwell painted innocent children in an earlier age reading a book; today, he might paint their fingers swiping across a screen.

We don't yet know whether computers will change the way young people learn to think conceptually, but we already know how traditional subject matter is measured against the tools of technology. An acrimonious debate boils at the college level between pedagogues who think it's better to study for the B.A. and getting at least a smattering of what we used to call the Great Books, and young people who want to go from high school straight to programs offered at many community colleges to teach the technical skills in high demand. Many include working with computers. These skills promise better pay than a B.A. degree in the humanities can.

This is not an academic argument. There's a serious debate over whether Pell Grant programs, which fund part of the tuition for the pursuit of a four-year liberal arts degree, should be extended to cover job-oriented skills.

"If you want to take four years of Shakespeare, that's up to you," Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, tells The New York Times. "Is that what the public sector should support? The bottom line is, given the budget situation, we ought to be more concerned about preparing people for the job market."

Once upon a time, we had respect for the great books that expanded mind and imagination, the ability to think with insight. Now the emphasis is on tools, process not content.

The invention of the printing press put an end to illuminated manuscripts, but it spectacularly expanded access to information and literature. So it may be for the touch-screen generation, as words on paper diminish and disappear. We can always hope, but we're a long way from knowing what the impact of the digital technology will be on the brain. It may change the way we do what comes naturally.

Write to Suzanne Fields at: suzannefields2000@gmail.com. To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

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