Stupid Google and teaching reading

My girl Dina pointed me towards an Atlantic Magazine article titled Is Google Making Us Stupid that has caused quite an uproar this week.  Author Nicholas Carr’s central premise is that internet reading has changed the way our brains work for the worse.

Here’s a quote that I think encapsulates Carr’s assertion:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

I sense a bit of bias in these words because they suggest that the “power browsing through horizontal titles” is inherently negative.  Is it possible that this kind of “horizontal reading” is actually more sophisticated because it allows readers to easily make connections between topics of related interest?

Here’s what I mean:

A central element of my daily lessons are current event readings from the Internet. Because each event includes extensive collections of related links, my students can “power browse” through a topic at great depth with little hassle.  They can often find “time line articles” that show how a particular event has gradually developed, Q+A bits that lay out the central issues in each event, and external websites that provide additional resources on the topic of study.

Need an example?

Here’s a current event that we studied earlier this year about a group of hostages taken by FARC, a rebel group in Colombia that has been fighting against the government for decades:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7188509.stm

We’d been studying the different ways that people stand up to power all year—and South America is one of the required elements of our curriculum—-so learning a bit about FARC was important.  Besides, middle schoolers are naturally drawn to rebel groups!  Any time that you can talk about justice and injustice with preteens, you’ll have a captive audience.

(Pardon the pun)

Now, the challenge is that issues like the rebellion in Colombia are complex times ten.  There are often multiple perspectives, causes and characters that you need to sift through to get a good understanding of what is really going on.

In a web-free world, this sifting would be so cumbersome that no one would ever do it!  Heck, when I was twelve, I would have had to pull out about 67 encyclopedia volumes to learn enough to totally get what was going on in Colombia—-either that, or I would have read a short summary from page 63 of the Social Studies book.

Sound familiar?

But check out the “Features and Analysis” sidebar on this current event.  Amazing, isn’t it?

With a bit of Carr’s “horizontal reading,” my kids can easily investigate beyond the initial article they’re introduced to.  They can read background information about the leaders of FARC.  They can get a country guide that introduces them to Colombia, view pictures and short video clips about the crisis, and read articles about related events that took place both before the article we’re studying and that have taken place since our article was written.

All of this extra information scaffolds learning for my students.  Kids that aren’t comfortable with the reading level of current events can build a background of knowledge through images and video before reading.  Kids that are completely driven by a topic can explore it in great depth quickly and easily.

As a reading teacher, I’m just not sure that’s a bad thing.

So what do you think?

Are digital opportunities for reading inherently bad?  Are we all becoming a nation of scatterbrains that can’t focus for more than two or three mouse clicks before losing interest?

Or is it possible that digital reading might just be a better experience for students?  Has digital content made accessing knowledge easier for your kids—and thereby made deep investigation more likely than ever before?

Most importantly, what actions can we take to ensure that the internet-based reading experiences don’t “make our kids stupid?”

After all, the internet ain’t going away anytime soon!