I recently read a post written by Colm O’Regan about Divided Attention Disorder. It was yet another one of those articles talking about how our brains are possibly changing as a result of our constant exposure to online information. We’ve heard similar arguments from Nicholas Carr, who wrote the article “Is Google making us stupid?” and has gone on to pen The Shallows. (It’s worth noting that Nicholas is making a pretty penny cashing in on this message.)
Colm’s description of the way he works from day to day sounds very much like me:
“My Internet browser has 24 tabs open. Among them are three separate attempts to reply to the same e-mail. My online banking session has timed out, and in the corner of my screen a Twitter feed is a never-ending scroll of news and links. Which I click. And click.”
People with whom I work (and the students I teach) are often incredulous at how many tabs I have open at any one time. It’s of no consequence to me; I know what’s there and why I have them open. This is how I live now, and I’m perfectly comfortable with it. I don’t think my brain is being affected in any way. In fact, if I look back over the years and reflect on my information-seeking history, it’s apparent to me that this is just part of my natural evolutionary process.
I’ve always been an information junkie. When I was a young child, reading was my passion. I consumed books from my school library, and if I could get my hands on a copy of the Reader’s Digest, I was in heaven. I loved anything, television media included, that provided me with knowledge – any detail that helped me piece together the workings of the world.
I would latch onto a topic and explore it as best I could, with whatever resources I had at hand. Very often I was limited by the constraints of the age I was living in. If you were obsessed with a subject in the late 1970′s (ghostly phenomena was one of mine), what you found on your local library shelves would just have to get you through.
I haven’t changed. I’m still an information junkie. What has changed is the world I’m living in and the information I have available at my fingertips 24/7, should I choose to use a computing device and pay for an internet connection. Do I read books as much as I used to? No, I don’t. Do I think I need to? Only if they’re worth reading and can provide me with more than what I can access for free from online sources.
Is my attention span different? Possibly. But once again, it’s the quality of the information that keeps me reading. If something is good, I’ll devote the time to read it through. If it contains a hyperlink that causes me to wonder, I may jump from the original source and investigate where it leads. For me, this has just natural daily routine. Yes, I function differently than I did five years ago, but I figure it’s part of the evolutionary path an information junkie follows in the connected age.
Today’s student information junkie
When I think of the students I teach, there are some who are clearly insatiable seekers of information and others who are content to be shown the way. That’s something else that hasn’t changed much, and as teachers, we need to differentiate instruction to respond to all kinds of learners.
Still, as a teacher librarian, what interests me most is this: How are we catering to the needs of the information junkies we have in our classrooms today? The inquisitive 10-year old who wants to know everything there is to know about whale sharks, or dark matter or bridge construction. The 15-year old who finds the four-week unit on the Vietnam War just a brush stroke on the full canvas she wants to paint of that era.
Are we doing enough in our schools to find ways for deep investigation of topics that students find fascinating? Should we make more room in our curriculum to foster independent research based on individual interests? Are we guiding students who feel driven to self-direct their own learning toward production tools like blogs that will allow them to demonstrate their knowledge base and potentially make meaningful connections with experts in their field of interest?
My experience tells me that the opportunities and support for students like these are few and far between in many schools that continue to deliver a content-heavy curriculum. If you’re a young information junkie, you’re probably going to have to explore what really interests you in your time away from school.
For those of us who began life with the pen-and-paper model of learning, but a naturally inquisitive nature, the internet has opened up vast possibilities. For others, it’s different. I had a conversation with a close friend about this very thing. She has no desire to spend hours looking at a computer screen. She’s happy with the old-school way she lives her life. I respect that. Do I think her life may change as more and more of how we access information transfers to the Web? Yes, I do. Will she be like me? I doubt it.
She’s not an information junkie, you see. We’re a class all our own. If you’re a teacher (junkie or not), try and recognize this breed within your herd. They need your encouragement — and plenty of space to roam and grow.