Hey, Brain, Let’s Slow Down and Get to Know Each Other #change11

Clark Quinn’s overview of Slow Learning is a lot more subversive than it appears, but I don’t mean subversive to traditional pedagogy. We tend to associate the word “subversive” with 1960’s radicalism, or as some kind of challenge to the puritan ethics of work and prudence. I sense, however, in Slow Learning a different kind of subversion, one that is far more traditional than most learning theories that get trumpeted on MOOCs. The Slow Food movement is a good example of how tradition has been used to combat excesses of modernity, in particular the unhealthy, pre-packaged fast foods we consume. Slow Food is subversive by being retrograde. It is a conservative movement (though not necessarily “conservative” in the sense of American politics).

Any Slow Learning movement must inevitably take on the excesses of the Internet Age. It’s a movement that would inevitably look to figures like Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr who have dared to point out certain areas of exposed skin on the emperor. This article by Meris Stansbury addresses some of Carr’s complaints, mainly that we’re ignoring the negative effects of the internet on our brains and our quality of thinking:

As we use technologies like smart phones and the internet, our brains are changing as well, and Carr argued that although we acquire skills, such as increased visual-spatial intelligence (being aware of many moving parts at once), we also weaken our “mindful knowledge acquisition,” inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.

“Our brain is becoming saturated with information, and it’s becoming harder for us to hold onto meaningful information, if we can even pick out what’s meaningful anymore,” he explained.

The need to acquire many bits of information is nothing new, Carr said. Supposedly, early man needed to gather as much information as quickly as possible just to survive.

The brain releases dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure, every time we receive new information, said Carr. The printed page and reading eventually changed that, but now we’re reverting to old times all over again.

For example, Carr quoted a recent study showing that for an average adult, time devoted to looking at screens per day averaged 8.5 hours, whereas time devoted to reading from pages per day averaged 20 minutes.

“This is a problem, because our brain has a ‘bottleneck’ when we go back to these old habits, meaning that our working memory has a ‘cognitive overload’—which can negatively affect our long-term memory and our ability to evaluate information and distinguish what’s useful from what’s just trivia,” he said.

For awhile now, I’ve thought that schools who ban cell phones and restrict computer use were living in the past and providing a disservice to their students who need to be trained on the forward path and fast. Now I’m wondering what all of this fast-forwarding is doing to our students.  Right now, it seems subversive to use Twitter in the classroom and to click your way through pages of research. Soon, this will become the status quo, and we’ll be complaining of the negative effects of too much internet use on education. We’ll start to sound like those “backwards cranks” who are still teaching in Industrial Age.

I agree, the Industrial Age model is over. But I think certain elements of the past will come back. I envision a new model that, from the outside, looks a lot like the one-room school house in the country.  It will become subversive to sit in silence and read for two hours straight from a real book, or maybe an e-book with no internet access. It will be subversive to sit outside under a tree with your devices out of reach, to go for a walk and reflect on what you’re learning. It will be subversive to think deeply and make a connection with only yourself.

Our course, students will use computers and the internet, just a lot less often, with less frivolity, and after contemplation. They’ll use them to make their lives simple and efficient, not cluttered and wired. “Wired” is a terrible word to describe the ideal consciousness. It suggests a hyper, frenetic brain geared up and ready to do too much at once. In time, we’ll develop better metaphors. I don’t think “slow” is ideal, but “balance” is a good place to start.

Leave a comment


  1. I agree. People will begin to look for a balance. Perhaps it’ll happen after the rush to non-tech. for teaching–as if one model is always better than the other. I’m still in wonder that most of the conversations about integrating technology in education still begin with the instructive, “think about your objective”. The objective to learning must be reached by deeper levels of thinking and/or absorption. Finding the right formula will be the next step after the rush to adaption.

    Henning Mankell’s opinion piece, “The Art of Listening” is fascinating in the context of 21st Century learning. (New York Times, 10.12.11) He talks about the power of storytelling in African cultures and how fully (quietly) listening to stories that may not have a clear definition is the way to learning: Mankell learned from listening and he learned about listening. Social media, the Internet, and many of the newer approaches to curriculum development is about learning via random and sometimes multiple, simultaneous storytelling. It’s our listening skills that need to be developed. Finding the balance of when to turn it off, when to know how and when to turn it off, seems to be a constant challenge for Western cultures.

    • Andrew Neuendorf

       /  December 12, 2011

      Thanks for the reply. I will read that article. I worry that our ability to focus on (and listen to) a sustained, meaningful narrative will be lost if we keep moving in hyper-speed.

  2. Hi Andrew, I agree, I think eventually more and more people realize that online is not everything…..

  3. Hi Andrew, thank you for this post. I do not not this Carr, will do a search on him.
    I wonder how a brain can become saturated with information? Same as reading to many books? I do not think Carr did much research on that.
    I wonder how Carr did invent the idea of dopamine in the brain every time we receive new information? Do we ever not receive new information?
    thanks again

    • Andrew Neuendorf

       /  December 13, 2011

      I’ll try to do a little more reading on Carr and post again on this. He has an article called “Does Google Make Us Stupid” in the Atlantic from a few years ago. I remember having mixed feelings about it, but it’s something I’m worried about. I’ll come back to this. Thanks for reading!!

  4. Thanks, Andrew, subsersive seems to be the right word for what I’ve been feeling the last few weeks by choosing to be less active in the #change11 mooc (and less active online in general) while focusing on family over the holidays. For example, there was a gap of about three days between a birth in the family and the posting of said news on FB. Some people would find that totally bizarre but I was happier holding the real thing than reporting about it.

  1. Abundance or information overflow, does it harm? #change11 « connectiv

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