Mark Bauerlein—Professor of English at Emory University and one-time Director of Research at the National Endowment of the Arts—is one of today’s most vocal and visible critics of the role that technology can play in teaching and learning.

Author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, ol’ Marky-Mark churns out hyperbole like nobody’s business.  To get a sense for just how much Bauerlein doubts the learning benefits of digital tools, check out these two doozies, launched across the digital bow early in his scathing critique of students and schools:

On today’s kids:

“Whatever their other virtues, these minds know far too little, and they read and write and calculate and reflect way too poorly. However many hours they pass at the screen from age 11 to 25, however many blog comments they compose, intricate games they play, videos they create, personal profiles they craft, and gadgets they master, the transfer doesn’t happen. The Web grows, and the young adult mind stalls.”

(Bauerlein, 2008, Kindle Location 1683-85)

On today’s teachers:

“Ever optimistic, techno-cheerleaders view the digital learning experience through their own motivated eyes, and they picture something that doesn’t yet exist: classrooms illuminating the wide, wide world, teachers becoming twenty-first-century techno-facilitators, and students at screens inspired to ponder, imagine, reflect, analyze, memorize, recite and create.”

(Bauerlein, 2008, Kindle location 1900-1906)

Now, here’s the thing:  There’s a BUNCH of truth in Bauerlein’s comments.  Left to their own devices—-pun definitely intended.  In fact, I couldn’t resist—-our students probably WILL struggle to find ways to use digital tools to become master learners.  Instead, they’ll be drawn to the kinds of mindless activities that we all look down on.

(Can anyone over the age of 15 REALLY argue that hundreds of hours checking Facebook profiles and watching YouTube videos is a good thing?!)

But is that any different than the choices made by kids in earlier generations?  

I mean, I didn’t have access to the Internet or a thousand mobile devices when I was a kid.  I had a record player, Carl Douglas’ Kung Fu Fighting on vinyl, and a shelf full of the Hardy Boys—and I STILL found ways to waste my time on completely mindless endeavors.

I blew bottle rockets out of the end of baseball bats pretending to be hauling a bazooka through ‘Nam, I fried the slugs in my mother’s garden with salt, I started crab-apple wars with the neighbor kids, and I pressed ham against my bedroom window trying to gross out the girl who lived across the street.

No, Mark, It’s not technology that’s dumbing down today’s kids.  It’s poorly channeled hormones and an evolutionary trend towards mindlessness. (If you think about it, it’s really kind of a miracle that society evolved at all, isn’t it?) 

And it remains OUR JOB to pull our kids—kicking and screaming with their Wii remotes in hand if necessary—into the land of the learned.

(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

The good news is that the “land of the learned” will look familiar to us edukated types.  Our kids still need a basic understanding of governments and science.  Being able to multiply and divide is still a pretty important skill to have, too—-and I wouldn’t complain if my kids could write a complete sentence without needing too much red ink to guide them.

Collaborating with peers and being able to communicate still matters.  So does being able to solve problems, manage and judge the reliability of information and finding trends and patterns across domains.  Nothing new there.


But let’s not pretend that nothing hadn’t changed any in the past 20 years either now.  Technology has made EVERYTHING in “the land of the learned” easier.

Access to free digital tools means that we can communicate and collaborate across boundaries with little effort and/or expense.  RSS feeds allow users to sort through heaping mounds of content in a systematic way.  Video games and simulations provide opportunities for mental rehearsals and frequent practice in almost any domain.  And tools like Twitter—-which Bauerlein calls “Social Nitwitting“—can make anytime, anywhere learning possible for anyone.

Heck, paired with a digitally-savvy teacher, kids can work together on international problems with peers on other continents in the morning and still make it to lunch in time to chug Slurpees until frozen, icy slush bleeds through their noses.

Did you see the key:  A digitally savvy teacher is the game changer—-another pun I couldn’t resist—for today’s kid.  We’ve got to find ways to bridge what we know about good teaching with what our kids already know about new tools.

Otherwise Bauerlein’s right and we’ll be stuck living in a pop culture loving wasteland ruled by kids raised on heaping doses of Vampire Novels, Paris Hilton and the Jonas Brothers.

You don’t really want that, do you?!


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