Thoughts on Thinking in the Digital Age

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

It has always fascinated me to cogitate a bit about how we think. How do our thoughts become conscious to our minds? We examine the world through our senses and translate many of them into speech and language. Our memories of things often take on a wide range of sensory images. If we think about our mother’s apple pie that she baked for us when we were a kid, do we think in words or combinations of words, smells and tastes? Are most of our thoughts and memories in the form of a speaker in our heads? How do my fingers know what to type as I write this? If a stranger asks me how to find a place or address, do I see that address in my mind or do I just verbalize the directions or a bit of both? I often see in my mind the roads and buildings. If I am deaf, do I have an ASL signer in my mind? If I am deaf blind, do I have a tactile signer in my array of mental images?

If I am an architect, are my memories filled with architectural drawings of the inner workings of buildings or do I see the completed structures as well? If I am a musician, do melodies run through my head or do I see musical scores? If I am a computer programmer, do I think in code? If I am bilingual, do I think in one language only or a composite of languages? If I speak several languages, how do I organize my thoughts?

In the early 1900s, some scholars and researchers thought that deaf people without speech and language could not think and blind people without reading had only limited abilities to think. We now know that even people that are mentally disabled can think and reason about complex issues. For example, a 70 IQ man can become well informed on nuclear power plants. True, he cannot design or operate one, but he can learn considerable amounts of information with respect to such a plant. We all reach a roof of what we can learn, but we also can continue to learn broadly about many subject areas. I once worked with downs syndrome children, and I told their parents to think about their development with the roof of learning lower than average, but a lifetime of 60 or 70 years of learning at the level of a twelve year old can account for many years of wisdom. When we hit our roof of what we can learn, it does not mean we stop learning. Our learning takes on a broader scope, which means we are not going to the more mature in-depth levels in specific areas. We can and continue to learn about new areas of interest.

In the USA over the last century, our national IQ rose on average 3 points each decade. Does that mean we are smarter than ever before? Not necessarily because society still averages out at 100 points on IQ tests. Is a person with a 130 IQ more accomplished today than the same person in 1911? Yes, probably, but more is expected of that person and their place in society is relatively the same.

A prominent television personality deplored the fact that in his opinion we are not teaching history very well today. In one sense he is correct, but I would counter that the informal cornucopia of information is extensive for a motivated learner. There are wonderful books available and extensive video documentations of history. Many of our young people take advantage of these resources.

The Google resources are enormous, and any teenager can ask questions and receive instantaneous answers. I just asked how tall Abraham Lincoln was, and the answer came back: 6 feet 4 inches. Much more complex questions can be asked.

I believe we need more study on how we think and use mental images. I have two deaf friends that lost their hearing when they were in their twenties. Both are excellent lip readers. I asked them if they still had auditory memories and mental images of sound. Their answer was yes that for each person they met their mind established an auditory image, that is, a voice for the person they were talking with. When lip-reading they heard an auditory voice in their minds. This is in contrast to a congenitally deaf individual who when lip reading have only visual images.

There are among us people who make enormous advances, and they are often referred to as people who think outside the box. How do people think outside the box? Did Vincent van Gogh visualize in a unique manner that enabled him to create his artistic masterpieces? Did he think outside the box? We know Galileo, Einstein, Lincoln, Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Raymond Kurzweil, Andy Warhol and many others thought outside the box. How do we create an educational system that stimulates such thinkers?

Is the promise of the digital age that we will have an educational environment that nurtures out of the box thinkers?

6 Responses

  1. Frank, you ask a fundamental question, one that goes straight to the heart of education: How exactly do we think? Considering that thinking is the business of education, you’d think we’d have the answer to guide our efforts. The fact is, we don’t have an answer that everyone can agree on. Yet, in our schools and colleges, we carry on as though thinking is a given and we know how to teach students how to do it.

    I’m an English teacher so my definition is biased. In my opinion, the best preparation for thinking is reading and writing — and by reading and writing I mean active participation in ongoing discussions on the issues that matter.

    Students should be exposed to the critical issues and themes that cross the boundaries of time and space and challenge every generation. By exposed, I mean they should, for a given topic, read the best opinions and thoughts, discuss them with peers and teachers, and write papers that reflect their best thinking at that moment in time.

    “What do you think?” should be the basic question in every lesson, every class, at every level. Differences of opinion ought to be encouraged and rewarded not just for being “correct” but for the extent to which they force others to rethink their current assumptions, truths, theories, etc.

    The “right answer” should not be the goal of learning. Instead, “thinking” ought to be — and not just thinking in the box but outside, especially.

    For this kind of thinking to occur, teachers and their institutions must be open. We cannot afford to condemn and silence the Ward Churchills of the world who ask us to consider opinions that don’t fit in with the current political, social, religious, or cultural climate. For thinking, freedom is like fresh air. Without it, it suffocates and dies.

    When we ask why our educational system is failing, we need to ask the questions you’re asking, Frank. We have to come to an agreement on the definition of “thinking” in its various forms and, if necessary, categorize or rank them. We need to then create climates that nurture it/them.

  2. […] Thoughts on Thinking in the Digital Age « Educational Technology … Grodzka Gate – A Portal to Our Past · Integration of Pedagogy and Technology in Teacher Education: An Interview with Emily Hixon · Are Online Discussions a Form of Writing or Speaking – or Something Altogether Different? Source: […]

  3. I found this while reading poetry.

    “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”
    — Tagore, Bengali poet

    This was is an example of the expansion that the Internet gives us. We are no longer limited to the poetry, and literature of our own culture and the flat world poses some challenges for those who do not have scholarship. There is so much to discover, and make connections to.

    I thought I knew a lot until I met this lady, Danny Starre Townes, who was a teacher. She said take a year. So I took 1492. We were to create a map of what happened in the world in 1492 , This was before technology. . Then there was Hilda Taba.

    She died before her work was finished, but
    Taba explains a process for what educators should teach and how they can accomplish desired student outcomes. In order for teachers to teach effectively, they need to understand the three levels of knowledge. Taba lists them as facts, basic ideas and principles, and concepts. Too much factual information is often presented very quickly, so students do not make connections between the new information and the information stored in their brains. Hilda Taba explains how when facts are simply memorized and not connected to previously known information, students forget the memorized facts within approximately two years. Taba says basic ideas and principles should be selected based on what information children are able to learn at their ages and based on what information has scientific validity. The final level of knowledge, concepts, involves students using knowledge from all content areas to predict outcomes or effects.

    The digital age gives us ways to connect facts, basic ideas and principles and concepts. Many things we consider facts are strewn to the wind. Columbus discovered America I don’t think so.. What a great debate we could have. I have been studying the coming together of the two old worlds since attending the 500 year anniversary of the work at the Smithsonian. We had in Washington a wonderful source of new kinds of information .. and then there are the books on the “supposed ” Chinese mapping of the then known world. I guess somewhere on the history channel someday this will be covered.

    A mother complained to my principal that she used to know who discovered America but that I had totally confused her.
    My principal asked, ” Is that a good thing?”

    At the Smithsonian we were able to use the digital age to share this web site. Here is the part that includes children of all ages.

    Remember I talked about loving learning at the Smithsonian, well
    the Seeds of change exhibit let us use maps. food, elements of change
    the horse, corn, potato, disease and the tomato as points of discussion.

    MInority kids had a lot to learn that is not in the regular textbooks, what was the reason that the civilizations declined. Who talks about the effect that disease had on the populations of the Americas, or in reverse the diseases that came and were transmitted to the ” discoverers” you know, the English disease, the French disease.. syphilis and I am not sure that scientist have agreed on the origin of this disease, but it is fascinating to think of disease as an important part of exploration.

    Native American history and our own tells of the devastaton that smallpox , and even the common cold brought to their culture.

    Potato. So many kinds and the history of the potato , curious and
    with a profound effect in Europe.

    Columbus didn’t discover America. People were living here for many years before Columbus came. One great thing that Columbus did was to begin the trade routes which had never been established between Europe and the Americas. Amongst the trade items were many plants and animals. Beans, carrots, wheat, horses, pigs, cows, and much more were introduced to the Americas. Corn, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, and more were brought back to Europe. How have these events affected our lives today? Look through some of the classroom activities in this section to see if you can answer that question for yourself.
    Over the centuries, as people migrated from place to place, conquered new territories, and opened new trade routes, they took food crops with them spreading them from their land of origin to other areas. By the time Columbus set sail in 1492, Southern Spain grew rice and oranges that had been introduced and popularized by Arab invaders. Northern Europeans planted peas and oats that had come along with the expansion of the Roman Empire. East Africans ate mangos and eggplants carried by Persian voyagers. And across the Atlantic, North American Indians farmed corn, beans, and squash which had been domesticated thousands of miles to the south.

    Although many food plants had traveled halfway around the globe by 1492, not one food crop had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. That is why 1492 is such a crucial date in the history of the world’s food supply: Columbus’ voyages initiated the interchange of plants between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, which in effect doubled the food crop resources available to peoples on both sides of the Atlantic. As Thomas Jefferson noted: “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture…” [The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, 1900 as quoted in Crosby’s “the Columbian Voyages, the Columbian Exchange, and Their Historians]

    The tomato as effective. I loved the lesson of when tomato met spaghetti and the art that shows it. But that history is not complete either, we still debate about the origins of pasta.

    Look here for information on foods.

    We created a garden of the foods. At the Smithsonian and in our own school. A parent turned over the earth and we used resources , seeds and tools from 4H to get the garden going with this kind of

    We were able to get tools and information from the National Gardening Association.

    This is hands on research so we explores exotic fruits, pineapple, mango, star fruit… we did the seeds lessons in ESS. . So
    can you imagine the other plants and seeds we explored?

    Coconut, one big seed, then tomato, peanit,. watermelon.
    There were drawings and poetry, there is art yet this is biology.,

    I am sure that , tobacco was not featured, I am from Virginia, and Williamsburg is one of my favorite places to visit and learn about. but we omit the study of tobacco , I suppose for health reasons.
    Even in South Africa today the picture of an Indian with tobacco is a
    shown. Medicines too traveled the world .

    So you can see, that in studying with media, access to museums,
    ship and captains logs , the effect of religions ( we probably are restricted in schools) who knew that the priests destroyed most of the written history of the ancient civilizations of America.

    The horse , if I have not gotten your attention with the other elements , was a pivotal part of the exploration.

    How can a student not find something to want to explore, examine, elaborate, investigate and think about? Ideational scaffolding
    opens their minds to possibilities.

    We don’t dump this all on them, but use ways of sharing that are books, games, the arts, museums and literature.

    Do you think my kids were bored? Look at the plant study pictures and some of the Maya art work.

  4. […] Thoughts on Thinking in the Digital Age By Frank B. Withrow It has always fascinated me to cogitate a bit about how we think. How do our thoughts become conscious to our minds? We examine the world through our senses and translate man… Source: […]

  5. So I spent Thanksgiving with small relatives who barely talk, one does the other does not. Nine months one, and almost three the other.
    So there were gadgets, an IPhone, IPad, lots of tablets.

    The youngest child was easy to please , a grin a hug and some
    talking to. Little Miss wanted to be entertained. I think I have
    forgotten my training for K , and after reading a lot of books to her
    I found the books on line, and the songs on line. She is barely talking but using the IPad to sing songs, and learn words. It is almost overwhelming to me,, not that I fear that she does not play, indeed she does, we looked at leaves, and rocks, and shoes, and put diapers on her dolls, and monkey , but every day she learned new words and we were able to catalog and watch how she learned.

    I worry for those who do not have access.

    I am relieved not to have to read Clifford the Big Red Dog 23 times.
    I like giving her a choice of hardback, hugs, or IPad …


  6. Bonnie, it looks as though you had a bonny Thanksgiving day with your family and especially your 3-yr-old relative.

    I worry, too, about children who are growing up without the electronics that extend the world of learning and knowing into the private lives of even very young children. I can’t help but think that allowing students to bring these gadgets to school and allowing them to use them as part of their classroom learning and recreational activities can have a positive impact for all students.

    Yes, those who don’t have them will be left out, but this uneven playing field may be just the incentive we need to acknowledge the digital divide and do something about it. Schools would be forced to come up with programs and funds to immediately close the gap by providing all students with the same quality technology.

    The differences between schools, too, will become more apparent when the have-nots stand in stark contrast to the haves. Again, we’d be forced to bridge the gap ASAP to level the playing field.

    Maybe what’s needed is a dramatic demonstration of the divide to spotlight the need to give all students access to the world of digital information.

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