Power Learning

Chapter Five - High Tech English

I. Introduction

In smokestack times, students were primarily consumers of others' ideas and insights. They were expected to swallow what they read more or less whole in the order of courses presented. Appetizers first. Desert last.

In the Information Age school, as students will be producing ideas, they will be engaged in understanding how ideas are put together - how they are structured - and they will be making up their own minds. Because electronic text makes it easy to do, they will learn to hop, skip and jump - mentally.

New technologies might change many of the ways we speak, write, listen, think and understand. Some of these changes will be beneficial, contributing to power learning of the kind described in previous chapters. These changes may strengthen the reasoning powers of students, helping them to become thinkers, researchers and inventors. They may also support the development of poetic, intuitive and multisensory capabilities.

On the other hand, we must also be on the lookout for ways that technologies may undermine those same possibilities, bearing in mind Postman's (1992) charge that technology, blindly accepted, is a form of cultural AIDs, undermining our belief systems and key cultural values in subtle ways.

This chapter explores changing conceptions of what it means to read, what it means to write and what it means to communicate in the Information Age, given the arrival of electronic, digitized information. The essential question is how the new technologies can best be employed in schools to achieve power learning.

II. What It Now Means to Read

• Electronic Text - Key to Open-Minded Thinking

When the printing press made the printed word available to the middle classes and, ultimately, to the entire citizenry, it helped to create a social revolution which led to the decline of monarchy and the rise of democracy in the Western world. Ideas and information could no longer be suppressed or monopolized. Electronic text - because of its permeability, fluidity, malleability, responsiveness, availability, transportability and marriageability - may have an equally momentous impact upon the nature of society, actually supporting the growth of open-minded thinking and collaboration in a culture which has long tended toward closed-mindedness and argumentation.

• The Printed Word - Lockstep Reasoning

Most of us learned to read the printed page from left to right and from top to bottom. When reading a book, we usually began on the first page and kept turning pages until we found our way to the back. Reading has long been very sequential. Most of us have accepted the structure offered by the author. We assume that the first paragraph is first for a very good reason. And the same for the second paragraph. Sentences, paragraphs and chapters are laid out in a sequence carefully orchestrated by the writer, who, we assume, has a plan in mind for how we might best learn whatever message is being expressed. How many readers began this book, for example, by skimming the final chapter?

In smokestack classrooms, even though some models of reading did encourage scanning and questioning prior to reading (S3QR, for example), students were rarely encouraged to break the sequential pattern. Even those models were limited by human technology - the eye as a scanner. The reader could search only as far as the eye could see. The sheer volume of words and pages in a history book made searching for ideas difficult and very time consuming. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many people paid for speed reading courses which taught how to skim through text and focus on main ideas, but the path remained quite linear.

• Student as Consumer of Ideas

The main purpose for much of the non-fiction reading in smokestack schools was the consumption of the author's ideas and evidence. Once the ideas had been consumed and committed to memory, the student would be expected to regurgitate, either reciting the lessons in class or on some test. Even when handling questions at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy, many students were encouraged to borrow the thinking of experts, citing them carefully in footnotes.

Judging from discouraging NAEP data on critical thinking skills possessed by eleventh graders in reading (less than ten per cent of the students demonstrate high skill), few students have been engaged in analyzing the logic and the structure of authors' ideas, a deficit which also shows up when it comes to students ability to edit their own writing to improve reasoning as well as expression (Applebee, 1986).

• Printed Text - The Constraints of Linearity

The main premise of this chapter is that the linearity of printed text lent itself especially well to student consumption of others' ideas. The job of the student with pre-electronic texts was to "follow" and learn the authors' thinking. Electronic text makes it much easier for the student to explore and critique the thinking of others on the way to producing one's own insights.

• Electronic Text - Permeable

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text is extremely easy to penetrate. One can probe below the surface to find previously elusive ideas or facts with ease. We can now retrieve the proverbial needle in the haystack in a matter of seconds. This permeability means that it is much easier to explore other people's thinking, maintain an open mind and draw one's own conclusions. It is easier to play around with the pieces of some mental puzzle.

While printed text is somewhat like a very long necklace with its beads (thoughts and evidence) sequentially strung, electronic text is more like a wonderful stew pot simmering on the stove. When you lift off the lid, you may stir and ladle up what suits your taste in whatever order you wish, especially if you have been trained to understand how ideas may fit together.

Because of this permeability, reading in the Information Age will come to include a more inventive, less sequential approach to exploring the content of a text file. Our students will become skilled browsers and seekers. They will be infotectives - modern diviners wielding electronic magic wands. It is almost as if we had taken the beads off the string so we can turn them into dozens of new necklaces. Other people's ideas are suddenly in the service of our thinking.

• Electronic Text - Fluid

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text is extremely easy to move around. Employing various cut-and-paste functions, the reader can rearrange the information and the idea, combining it with information and ideas gleaned from other texts. These combinations will often spawn new ideas. While the linearity of print restricted rearrangement and idea play, the fluidity of electronic text invites such play.

While searching through text files, reading will come to include some form of collecting and storing of thoughts. The reader will want to store bits and pieces, like shells found along the seashore or like beads unstrung from a necklace, in ways that they can be retrieved or revisited for play and consideration. Fortunately, the new technologies offer dynamic, relational databases supporting inventive and imaginative searching of such thought treasure chests.

Information Age readers will know how to conduct the following kinds of searches plus some new kinds not yet invented: user-defined concept searches, nested (progressive) searches, fuzzy searches (word roots), field or block searches, vocabulary list (browse index), phonetic searches, and thesaurus or synonym searches. They will also be skilled at creating links to structure their treasure chest for future searching: interdocument links, bookmarks, notes attached to text and tables of contents (Ga CotÈ, 1992). Various artificial intelligence systems will prompt the readers in both searching and structuring. "Have you thought about adding articles from the following related concepts?"

• Electronic Text - Malleable

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text is extremely easy to modify. The infotective can substitute new elements, combine elements, expand or compress elements, change the sequence, eliminate elements, and reverse elements. Such malleability invites open-minded thinking. Our mind is not set like concrete or lead. We can entertain new ideas and see how they dove-tail with the ideas we already hold.

• Electronic Text - Responsive

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text almost seems conversant, changing on the screen before our eyes as we ask questions and probe below the surface. Our queries create a kind of electronic dialogue. As artificial intelligence modules evolve, we will have a personal assistant like Apple's Newton giving us prompts in the form of questions or menus to help us with the inquiry and exploration.

Stymied, confused or lost in the maze of text, Information Age students will learn to trust their personal assistants to act as guides in some cases, suggesting ways out of their quandaries, but it will be a two way street. They will also train the personal assistant as they proceed and their thinking matures. Student and personal assistant will grow together along with a vast information storage system filled with hypertext far beyond the retention capacity of the human brain but intricately and powerfully linked to the team-thinking of student and personal assistant.

• Electronic Text - Available

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text is very easy to locate and physically possess. Imagine if someone asked twenty years ago for the text from today's front page of 25 leading newspapers. It might take days to obtain the actual papers. Otherwise, in order to meet the deadline, one could call the 25 newspapers long distance and ask them to read their front pages over the phone while a secretary transcribed the dictation.

Today one can conduct a simple database search and have the documents downloaded in less than an hour. As information centers around the world come to be linked through Internet and other networks, the average reader will be able to put their hands on mega-tomes of information cheaply, quickly and powerfully. With the marketing of CD-ROM readers to the home market, electronic books have become a reality, with a single disk offering thousands of pages of books and documents.

• Electronic Text - Transportable

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text can be exchanged, shared and transmitted with great facility, speed and economy. If one buys a best-selling book in a hardcover edition, sharing with friends must wait until one finishes the book and passes it along, unless one is comfortable with oral readings or friends peering over shoulders. Having typed a single memo to 50 classmates with a question about a passage in a French newspaper just downloaded the same morning, the student may send memo and article out to all 50 students over an electronic mail network in less time than it would have taken previously to mail it to one student using paper post. Information resources move around with great rapidity. Because they are transportable, their impact can grow exponentially, although electronic posting does not guarantee reading or comprehending at the other end.

• Electronic Text - Marriageable

Unlike printed text in books, electronic text files and resources can be linked in dynamic ways which cross what used to be information barriers or boundaries. If all of Shakespeare's works appear on one CD-ROM disk, for example, it become possible to identify and store every example of his use of the word "woman" from across all the plays and poems. Stored as fragments of text, brief quotations, "keywords in context," these items can be merged with a similar collection from Hemingway and the resulting compendium can be reshuffled, sorted and analyzed with great power.

III. Implications for Schools

It becomes difficult to separate electronic reading from thinking. It turns out that they are close relatives. We scan words and search for information in order to change our thinking, to learn something new, to gain insight.

Even though some students and people have been doing this kind of thinking long before the arrival of electronic text, electronic text makes it natural and increases its power dramatically.

For those concerned about our slipping rank on various international tests and our apparent lack of progress on national educational goals, it stands to reason that America's continued leadership in the world might be assured by moving quickly to take advantage of hypertext as a way of promoting student reasoning, creating a nation of what Toffler calls "brain workers" capable of making up their own minds.

IV. What It Means to Write

The new technologies have also radically changed writing, mostly for the better.

In smokestack schools, writing was often confused with the process of putting words down on paper in the same structure as an outline prepared in advance with appropriate Roman numerals and capital letters representing the major ideas arranged in some logical fashion. Once a first draft was completed, the focus was often upon the correction of mechanical and grammatical errors.

During the 1970s, writing as process pointed to a different view of writing, one which permitted a far longer period for incubation of ideas and thoughts, one which emphasized multiple versions, flexibility, audience, non-linear thinking and peer review. A basic tenet of this approach was the possibility that the best route to a good paper was not a straight line. In this approach, a writer was more like a gardener than a railroad engineer.

Combined with the word processor, writing as process offers the prospect of idea processing. The word processor provides greater fluidity and flexibility than other writing technologies. It supports greater word play and association. The writer can try out dozens, even hundreds of variations until the resulting product is just right. The word processor actually makes thinking more powerful, as long as students are taught how to use it in that way.

Unfortunately, the word processor works little magic by itself. If the mechanics-driven approach to writing still dominates a school and department, the word processor will do little more than improve the appearance and mechanics of student writing (McKenzie, 1991).

In the adult world, many professional writers found that electronic text permitted rapid, risk free early expression which could easily be cleaned up and modified later on. Writing, it soon became apparent, was not just what happened when you started moving a pen or began typing on a keyboard. Writing was also the development and refinement of ideas in one's mind. When someone ponders a writing challenge while showering, jogging or driving, that reflection is part of the writing process. If the same person sits down, types a word on the monitor and asks for synonyms, that is writing. If the person starts stringing words together into sentences, either mentally, on paper or on screen, all three are writing.

In writing as process, fragments are collected as beautiful beads which might later be strung in some ordered sequences. There is no early pressure for order and logic. The emphasis is upon richness. The goal is to gather as many impressions, thoughts and insights as possible without feeling constrained by critical and analytical judgments. Electronic text, because of its fluidity and malleability, is a wonderful medium for writers and thinkers.

V. What It Means to Communicate

Postman (1992) points out the lag between schools' emphasis on print media and the culture's preference for visual media. Few English departments offer an explicit curriculum to support the development of visual literacy. We also know that much communication between people, even when they are face to face, is non-verbal. In a global village, the likelihood is strong that we will encounter important others - potential customers, clients, or competitors - from very different cultures, behaviors and communication patterns. If we can learn to read the language of non-verbal communication across these cultures, we have a tremendous advantage.

Technologies are shifting our communication patterns rapidly and dramatically. Many people find, for example, that home voice mail means that we can nearly always leave a message for a friend, but we seem to have fewer actual conversations with these friends.

Our airports are filled with people either taking down voicemail messages or leaving messages. Many of these same people now find it hard to use the phone for human dialogue, the actual exchange of ideas. On the other hand, users groups report that computer bulletin boards actually seem to encourage communication from those who might be shy at an actual meeting. The technology often cuts several ways, and the way it cuts may result from default rather than conscious decision-making.

Schools cannot afford to leave the development of student communication skills to chance.


New technologies promise to shift what we have long been calling English or language arts in the direction of communication. While the study of literature, grammar and writing will remain extremely important, the way we will read for information and compose our thoughts is undergoing a fundamental shift. By embracing the best of the new technologies and discarding the worst, teachers of English can equip their students with an invaluable skillset to accompany them into the next century.

© 1993, J. McKenzie, all rights reserved.
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