Combatting “Twitter Brain” Syndrome

We recently worked with university faculty members on the development of five online undergraduate courses (one Sociology course, two Philosophy courses, and two English courses) wherein students were required to read quite a few of the original texts of various theorists, philosophers, novelists and poets.  Nothing new in this, students have been doing this since the dawn of universities many centuries ago. However, what struck me in each of these instances was the degree to which these various instructors emphasized the importance to their students of taking the time to immerse themselves in these original texts, and the care they took to provide their students with detailed guidance on the reading and interpretation of these works.

They each knew that this would be a huge challenge for the Millennials they teach, who are used to consuming information in small chunks on the screens of computers, tablets and smart phones. A mind conditioned by reading short text messages, tweets and Facebook postings does not always have much patience for hundreds of pages of text in a book, particularly those dealing with very complex and challenging concepts and issues.

I understand that “digital natives,” as Marc Prensky refers to those brought up in the digital age, demand to be engaged in their learning. They want to be active contributors to their learning, not just passive recipients of knowledge. Hence the need for active learning approaches and much student-to-instructor and student-to-student interaction. However, there are other important elements to engagement, including the individual learner deeply engaging in a solitary way, through text (i.e. words), with great minds about important issues concerning the human condition.

Lest you think this is all academic, there is research showing links between how we read and how the brain develops (1). Brain scans of expert and non-expert readers show stark differences. Deep, immersive reading creates new circuits that are not achieved to the same degree with surface reading of short segments in a digital hypertexted world. This evolution of our reading habits is leading to what Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, refers to as “Twitter brain.” She sees this as a dangerous development, saying:

“Syntax is a reflection of the convolution of thought. As we become too impatient to read complicated syntax, I wonder out loud about the capacity for handling the complexity of issues that are out there in life, with all their semicolons.” (2)

The students we are teaching will need to enter the world and face difficult issues and solve complex problems as parents, employees, managers, leaders and citizens. We need to help them develop the tool sets to do this.

A recent PEW Internet Project survey of teachers found anecdotal evidence of the negative effects of digital technology on the minds of students. Close to 90% of teachers surveyed said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” and 76% said that their students have been conditioned by the Internet to find quick answers and are not generally willing to persevere in the face of challenging tasks. (3)

I am not a Luddite, nor are the instructors I mentioned above. We all live and thrive in the digital world and use digital technologies all day, every day, in both our work lives and personal lives. However, maybe every once in a while, we should exhort our students to push themselves away from their computers, to shut off all their other electronic devices for a couple of hours (save eReaders perhaps), and dive into a great book and immerse themselves fully and deeply in all its complexities. We should then ask them to reflect on what they have read and to organize and share their thoughts on these reflections. And we should provide the coaching and encouragement and the guidance and the feedback necessary to make them expert-readers.

No one wants to go back to a non-digital life. But maybe we should stop and consider the consequences of what an immersive hypertexted digital life means to our students’ reading abilities, and, by consequence, their cognitive abilities. Maybe just as there is a slow food movement, we could create a slow learning movement. This could be one way to combat the negative consequences of “Twitter brain.”



(1) and (2): Books vs. Screens: Which Should Your Kids be Reading?,” by John Barber. The Globe and Mail (December 12, 2011)

(3) “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say,” by Matt Richtel. The New York Times (November 1, 2012)

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