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Henningsen: Sound Bite Learning

04/24/12 5:55PM By Vic Henningsen
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(Host) Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen recently came across some research that kind of put him in historical perspective.

(Henningsen) In a recent survey the Pew Research Center and Elon University revealed sharp disagreement about the impact of new communication and information technology on American youth. Asked to project the effect of hyper-connectivity by 2020, 55% of technology experts predicted that Americans under 35 would be learning more, and be - in the words of the report - "more adept at finding answers to deep questions." But 42% believed that they would be distracted and superficial learners.

As a teacher for almost forty years, I sympathize with the worriers. I assign about half as much reading per night as I once did and my students have more difficulty understanding it. It's harder to teach fundamental texts like the Declaration of Independence because many students can't sustain focus long enough to analyze the language and logic of the document.

Many of today's students struggle to understand an historical argument, let alone develop one of their own. Doing history requires addressing two related sets of questions. First are the fundamentals of identification, information, description and narration: the famous "Who/what/when and where?" But that's only a start. Far more important are the "Why?" and "So what?" of causation, consequence, and significance. Answering those requires students to compare and contrast information drawn from a number of sources, to tease out cause/effect relations, and to advance clear, well-organized interpretations or arguments.

And this is where today's "sound-bite learners" run into trouble. They're accustomed to depending on the first piece of information found on a quick internet search and don't seek a range of evidence from a variety of different sources. Because they have difficulty differentiating between more and less important evidence, all evidence tends to assume equal value. And that makes it difficult to deal with the complexity and nuance central to a fully developed argument. Reading today's student essays, I sometimes fear for the future of the republic.

That's the teacher in me. The historian takes a longer view. New technology always elicits commentary of the sort I just made. When writing was introduced people worried that youth would not have to remember anything and would develop what Socrates called "the show of wisdom without the reality." After the introduction of the printed book, educated elites complained that there was "too much to know" and despaired of ever organizing the flood of new information. Somehow humanity muddled through those moments and emerged in good shape. I suspect we will again this time.

By 2020, most teachers will be people who've never known anything but the technology I find so new. If you grew up thinking digitally, that's going to shape your teaching and you're going to be better at reaching hyper-connected young learners than those of us who came late to the new technology. I may regret that people won't be teaching history the way I did, but I have to concede the possibility that those who follow me may do it better.
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