Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Swimming or Skimming?

In his article in the Atlantic, Is Google making us Stupider, Nicholas Carr describes the feeling of losing his span of attention.

He describes how he used to love immersing himself into words and books and lengthy prose; but now, with computer-based reading occupying increasingly more of his reading, he struggles to read past a few paragraphs. Instead of thoughtful and involved reading, he is gleaning for ideas, while being bombarded by competing images and advertising.

He describes his transformation as the difference between swimming and Jet Skiing.

Carr is certainly not the only one having the experience of peeked distractibility online. But what are the implications of this kind of transformation in reading?

Is this phenomenon, as Carr suggests, making us ‘stupider’? Or are we, and our students benefiting from seeing more?

Perhaps online reading about: gardening, adventure travel, global issues (or any wide variety of topics), could actually be a richer experience for students (or any learner) if accompanied by images, links, and pop-ups.

If that is the case, then to deny our kids online reading, and promote books is an educational crime.

Is the pursuit of slow the equivalent of a thumb in the eye of the speed boat of technology? Does it behoove us all to get on the boat now or risk being left behind to become obsolete? (Have you noticed this about technology; at a certain point, if you’re not on Facebook, or you don’t’ have a cell phone, you’re a pain in the ass!?)

I think what it comes down is this: like any Jet Ski ride, the adrenaline rush is great at first, but eventually the ride has to either go somewhere, or come to an end. Extending the metaphor, at some point, students will find an area of interest, get off the Jet Ski and swim in the words.

And the reading will be more powerful because they will have found it on their own. Our job as educators, then must be that of guide and life guard.


  1. Great analogy!

    I think you're right...we speed around the web looking for all kinds of things...but soon we find our "stream" of information, we settle down and enjoy deeper understanding. As you put it though, we need that time to go out, go as fast as we can, and see what's out there before we find that perfect spot...to shut off the engine and just float for a little bit. :)

  2. I love your metaphor of the life guard, though it automatically brings to mind parents, as opposed to teachers.

    I think it's easy to stay at the skimming level. What's difficult is to push, challenge, and encourage students (and ourselves) to go deeper. Sure, you can stay at the surface, but you can do that with a book too. How do we ensure that our learning experiences push us to go deep with our learning and thinking.

    The interconnectedness of the web is one of the ways that can help push us. Finding connections, referencing other points of view, remixing and redefining our own thinking through the connected experience of learning online is what we need to focus on. This is the real challenge for all of us!

  3. I completely agree with the change in reading styles. I didn't realize how much I was "speed reading" on the web, until I started noticing I was missing important details along the way. Made me feel silly!

    Now, I consciously make a decision on how and what purpose I have for my reading on-line. Skim for breadth--or go deep on a topic. It's also a skill I am continually modeling for my kiddos in science class. They need to understand how reading for a purpose changes how we read--depending on our goals.

    Great post, made me stop and think.

  4. I suppose the importance of the subject line or headline becomes all the more important. And perhaps this new way of reading has been what has exploded Twitter and Facebook. Instant gratification for reading. BTW ... thanks Utecht for twittering this blog :)