There are some commentators who state that the printed word is fighting a rear-guard action against not only computers and television, but also a whole host of digital parvenus from hand held devices that do everything but make the tea (or perhaps they do now), iPads, Facebook and Twitter, YouTube, instant messaging, blogging, sharing music, pod- and videocasting, Flickr, and plentyof other disruptive technologies that haven’t penetrated my consciousness.

The ubiquity of the internet and especially the mobile phone mean they hold an unassailable place in the hearts and minds of most teenagers in the western world. (Email is dead, apparently, except when they reluctantly use it to communicate with adults).

Meanwhile, newspapers, magazines and books have ‘faded to shadows of their former selves, as this post-literate generation finds its facts and fun elsewhere’. Despair that kids aren’t reading anymore, that electronic media, of one sort or another, now occupy every spare moment, is commonplace in staffrooms, parental conversations and the mass media. There is a fear that digital technologies are responsible for numbing our kids’ intelligence and aspirations, and creating an ignorant generation unable to think for themselves. Sometimes commentators use statistics to support such a view: the PISA figures for 2009, based on assessments of 15 year olds in 65 countries in reading, maths and science, show that performance in Scotland has levelled off since 2006 (although it is above the international average in reading and science).

A frequent conversation in staff rooms decries the prevalence of electronic media’s demand for spectacle and brevity which is, it is claimed, wholly responsible for a reduction in children’s attention span. But this equates brevity with debased taste, and sees patience for long stories as a mark of high culture. But if brevity is to be deplored, what should we make of haiku, sonnets, and ink-brush calligraphy?

On the other side of the coin, lengthy sagas are not the sole prerogative of the literary elite. Pop culture has its share of huge tales – witness the Harry Potter canon. Indeed, for every pared-down presentation pumped out by the electronic media, an engaging narrative can be found. ‘From literacy to digiracy: Will reading and writing remain important?’

Just look at the plaudits showered upon the TV series ‘The Wire’. It’s been labelled essential viewing, with a staggering ambition, Shakespearian in its scope. It is a ‘dense, novelistic drama’ whose viewers ‘care deeply about the fate of the characters’. The Wire has been described by many critics as the greatest television series ever made.  Surely this is as valid a piece of storytelling ( and as lengthy and complex) as anything written in a book.

The naysayers are in good company. Socrates, too, had grave concerns about the impact of the written word. He challenged the new technology head on, questioning whether the mythical discovery of the written word served any useful purpose. The written word would ‘provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it’.

We do know that our sources of trusted wisdom are eroding fast. Look at the Wikileaks debacle. We can no longer view our institutions or leaders as sources of reliable information. John Naughton writing about the EU’s investigation into whether Google is abusing its dominance of the market for internet searches says that the EU’s

beef is that Google’s non-paid-for search results deliberately favour its own “Shopping” service and disadvantage them. Given that Google has effectively about 90% of the search market in the UK, it clearly has considerable power.

The article in the Economist continues:

Our trust of Google, which ranks a web page by how many other pages are linked to it, and how many other searchers view the page is in question.

I know that I approach such searches uncritically, trusting in the engine rather than my own judgement. I don’t think I’m alone. Our faith in such search engines highlights how easy it is to be seduced into accepting a ranking by ‘the wisdom of crowds’ or, more sinister, by commercial considerations.

I recognise that many young people have superior skills in making sense of contexts that are constantly changing rather than entrusting to a set body of knowledge. But this is not to say that teachers are irrelevant.  We have a significant role to play in supporting young learners to take control, to use the tools available to develop critical thinking, grow their understanding of what is and what is not of quality – in whatever format. And ultimately – excitingly, creatively, collaboratively – to help them to make their own interpretations, their own stories in a world that is constantly connected to everything and everyone.

And just because the world in which our children are growing up is light years away from that I experienced, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could help me to be part of that world too?

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