Review of ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr

I bought ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr because I wanted to get a flavour of how growing up in the age of the internet might affect how my students learn. I’d recommend this book to anyone with a similar interest, or alternatively you could have a look at Carr’s blog. This post is my summary of the just the key ideas in the book and how I think they relate to education.

The book itself combines history, psychology, and neuroscience to map the multitude of changes in information technology since the earliest evidence of reading and writing (8000BC), and the associated changes in the way humans think and remember. In the first chapter, Carr mentions that recently he has been aware that his brain has been changing significantly, and he is “not thinking the way [he] used to think”. My concern is that any influence that the internet has over our brains could be even more significant in young people today, who have been exposed to it almost as soon as they started to think.

The main idea behind this book is that using the internet in the way most people do these days has negative impacts on the way we read, think and remember. Carr devotes several chapters to each one of these areas, each containing both psychological and neurological research to support his claims. I’ll summarise one of his arguments below and two others in a future post. (If the justification for some of his ideas seem a bit ropey here, do read the book because he explains it a lot better than I can!)

The net reduces our attention spans, says Carr. We get used to instant gratification and become adept at analysing large numbers of visual and auditory cues in a short space of time. However, research suggests this is detrimental, and that ability to retain information is reduced when there are hyperlinks and easy access to other interesting content, like email and Facebook. The internet is increasing our ability to multitask but at the expense of our creativity, productivity, and inventiveness.

In his book, Carr gives lots of examples of studies that support this idea, and it’s one that seems very plausible to me. In the past, young people would have had more opportunities to focus their attention on one thing, which would allow for deeper thinking than when attention is constantly shifting from one thing to another.

The implication for education today is that living in an internet age allows young people fewer opportunities than ever to think deeply. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that teachers provide their students with support and encouragement to use higher-order thinking skills. With modern mobile technologies the ability to recall information is becoming less and less important (Wikipedia-on-the-go is something I now take for granted). The thinking skills that are more valuable as a result are those found nearer the top of Bloom’s taxonomy.

What are your thoughts on all of this? Is anyone aware of a change in the way think as a result of internet use?

1 comment
  1. Cassie said:

    I completely agree. The internet is becoming a huge part of humanity. These days people intend to rely on the internet for everything! Children are being ‘over-ruled’ by the internet. I think it doesn’t give them any social skills what-so-ever. Children get home and will start playing video games/watch TV/go onto a computer straight away when they get home, and it doesn’t help that their parents allow it.

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