Deep Learning – writing or typing?

infographic which talks about the way our brain works when we are writing

This is the second article I have read recently that talks about writing being a key component to more effective learning.  I have looked to see if there are alternative articles to refute this stance but so far have found none.  However, I wonder whether this premise is true for people of my generation (so-called digital immigrants) but not necessarily true for the present generation of “digital natives” who are growing up with tablets, phones and all things digital in their hands.  Despite being pretty handy with my laptop, “swyping” on my tablet, texting on my smart phone, I have to confess that I still find it easier to make notes on paper than on a digital document.  Having said that I do like reading via my kindle app especially whilst travelling, even if I also love the actual turning of real paper pages when reading “real” books.

So will digital reading and writing stimulate the same areas of the brain for the children of the 21st century that putting pen to paper does for the baby boomers?

This video suggests that already our brains are hard-wired differently.

I showed an infographic today to a group of colleagues for them to “read” and comment on as part of our Professional Development programme.  One of them said she found it really difficult to focus on because it was too bright and distracting; she would prefer an article with more text.  That gave rise to some discussion about styles of learning, reading, and how what we as teachers prefer and what our students find easier to access.  The general view was that although we find colours, images, symbols, bold and italic font difficult to decode our students do not.

We talked about turning the tables and thinking about how our students who have grown up in an audio-visual world feel when we confront them with a heap of text. Should we be providing more material for our students that is more in keeping with their experiences and their competencies?

Does this represent a “dumbing down” as some educators suggest? Do our students have a lower level of literacy because they prefer visual explanations rather than tracts of wordy text?

One of the Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum is “Using language, symbols and texts“.  This recognises that information is given in more than one way and that our young people need to be able to decipher and interpret information in all sorts of forms. This means that for thousands of people, there is now greater opportunity to succeed. There have always been people who can “read” images more easily than text, who can watch and listen and learn from visual and auditory stimuli more easily than text. In the past when all learning happened through the media of text those people “failed”.

It is great that we are much more cognisant of “learning styles” and cater for them in our classrooms through using differentiated activities for our students. However, we still tend towards teaching and planning activities that lean towards our own preferred learning style; it is an effort to put ourselves in the shoes of people who learn differently to us, it takes time (that teachers with full-time workloads often do not have) and it is hard. Nevertheless, we must try so that we can enable all of our learners to succeed.

My experience is that whatever stimulus or resource we use to engage our students we have to think of why we are using it? What is the end-game? Is it going to enhance learning and achievement? If infographics, videos, podcasts, text lead to deeper thinking and deeper learning then use them.

So back to my original question; can typing lead to deeper thinking in the same way that writing with a pen is purported to?  I don’t know what the answer to that question is, but I suspect that however you are putting ideas and thoughts into hard copy it is important to focus solely on the topic you are writing about.  Russell Poldrack said that “… humans are not built to work this way.  We’re really built to focus.”  He suggests that  “multitasking adversely affects how you learn.” (See Christine Rosen’s article “The Myth of Multi-tasking”) So if you are typing or writing with a pen, switch off your phone, close your email, close all tabs on a browser and if you need to do some research as you write, try to keep your open tabs to a minimum, and focus!

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