Friday, February 22, 2008

Some people just cannot predict the future.

Sorry! I know I said I would get to Edublogs next, but I was reading a chapter in a book while I was waiting for my wife to get off work yesterday. The book is (briefly) called Language Study in Middle School, High School, and Beyond. The pertinent chapter of said book is titled "The Future of the Written Word." Pretty interesting, right? That's what I thought. Now before I go into a tirade, I must preface this with one fact: it was written 10 years ago. Doesn't seem like much, does it? We'll often pull research from sources older than 10 years without question. Technology is different. Computer manufacturer HP discontinues its current line of laptops every three months and replaces them with newer models (I happen to know this because of my current place of work). Ten years is a long time. I recognize, then, that my point of view on this chapter is tainted by hindsight better than Baines' foresight. And with that, on to the book!

Baines begins the chapter saying, "The written word is receding as our communications device of choice. That is the verdict of luminaries ... and others who have noted that much of the technological innovation that has occurred since 1950 represents a move toward image-based and electronically mediated messages and a move away from words and books." He continues, "Although these literacies [writing, reading, speaking, listening, and thinking] demand linguistic competence, the electronic media, which captures the attention of most students, is image based; words (such as dialogue in a film, or text in a World Wide Web site) often only supplement visual messages." The name of the section following these statements is "The Retreat of the Written Word." The apocalyptic message that follows is a bit tough to swallow, but the problem for me started here at these statements.

In the last ten years, there has been a slight retreat of the written word, but only in the way that there has been a retreat since the 1400's when Johann Gutenberg shook the writing world up. Honestly, I see a change of the written word, rather than a retreat. Written words have changed from engravings, to pen and ink, to typeset, to an image displayed on a computer screen, but its worth hasn't diminished. Baines says that words will soon be used only to supplement images and video. This hasn't happened and I don't think it will. True, images have become a more important part of writing. Newspapers taught us that and I see nothing different between most websites these days and newspapers and advertisements of yore (except we're a little better at it now that we used to be). In a way, we're now able to use media to better supplement our words. Does this kill the use of imagery in writing? I don't think so. When I read my news online, I don't feel like a picture or a video kills the mental picture of the writing. In a way, I prefer reading the articles to the images or the videos because I'm able to catch more details from the nuances of the writer's work. Maybe that's just me. Maybe I just like to read too much.

Still, when an author claims that books being made into movies are further proof of this retreat, I can't help but think that he's grasping at straws. Publishers love it when books get made into movies. They sell more books. I often buy books because a movie brings the book to my attention (I did it with Harry Potter, Bridge to Terabithia, and the Golden Compass recently). I just can't buy it that this is an example of how a "newer technology can obliterate an older one."

Another complaint I have with his argument is that newer media types are somehow worse because they "use fewer polysyllabic words, have less complex sentence structures, have less lexical diversity, and reduce the complexity of dialogue, plot, character, and theme." Look, you're going to find bad writing no matter what Age you live in. Aside from that, to me complexity and good vocabulary doesn't necessarily make good writing. If that were the case, we'd all be reading scientific technical reports in our leisure time. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that his words don't hold some truth, but at least have some moderation. You can overdo it sometimes. Students really need to learn when to use complexity or simplicity in their writing to achieve the desired effect. Too much of either in the wrong circumstance will bring ruin to a potentially good work.

Ultimately, past all of his doom-saying, that's the point he gets down to. In the end he advocates the use of technology in the classroom. Hard to believe, I know, but he gives us the same caution.

At this point it might seem paradoxical to suggest that the most effective way a teacher can keep the printed word alive in the classroom is to utilize a multimedia, multi-sensory approach to language study ... Although technology could be a powerful ally in teaching, too often the "bells and whistles" drive the curriculum, not the teacher. If the written word is to survive, it will not be because a group of teachers have chosen to stop using their computers or televisions, but because they have managed to weld language to the electronic media.

Amen, brother! Seriously, this is the meat of it. Technology has a great power to enhance the classroom, but it also has a great power to ruin (as any tool, strategy, or model held too rigidly does). The bottom line is that teachers must be adaptable, especially to include things as world-changing as the internet and technology. The students will be using it, so why not take the in and teach them using something their familiar with?

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