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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kinesthetic learning and the written word: Will our tools adapt to us, or we to them?

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've posted before about the strange human world of symbols that steals us away from the one our bodies inhabit, in this post, and mentioned the way our brains are rewired through reading in this post. One of the puzzles facing us as the world changes ever more rapidly is how our minds will be rewired as our information environment and learning patters change.

Once, an employee at my bookstore looked at a note I'd written in longhand, and said, "what's that?" She was highly intelligent and well educated, but her Montessori school had not taught longhand.

With computers, most of our interaction will be with keyboarding, and we scroll through text instead of flipping pages. But students are finding that they learn better from books, perhaps because of our relationship to the physical book. A University of Washington study found the following:

"When we read, we unconsciously note the physical location of information within a text and its spatial relationship to our location in the text as a whole ... These mental images and representations do more than just help us recall where ideas are located in a given text. We use cognitive maps to retain and recall textual information more effectively, making them useful tools for students who are reading academic texts to satisfy specific goals."
 I was aware that there's a whole school of thought devoted to kinesthetic learning, but until I ran into Nick Carr's post on Rough Type about this study, it had never occurred to me that kinesthetic learning is part of how we learn to read.

Now, my former employee isn't the only person around who didn't learn to write longhand, and in fact, handwriting generally has been going downhill for a long time, and even computer programmers worry about it. Even if we retain scholars who can interpret the handwriting of their forefathers, and do not lose a whole subset of knowledge recorded this way, the fact that we write less by hand has got to change the way our minds get wired. Now a Twice Sold Tales customer in the Netherlands, Wim Van Bochoven, tells me some friends of his have developed an app for teaching handwriting to children.

Boreaal Publishers' new app, LetterSchool, teaches handwriting with a game on a touch screen. It's an interesting approach, and one that works for teaching keyboard skills. Of course, such an app would not have been possible before smartphones and iPads came along with their ubiquitous touch screens. Which makes me wonder, are the ways we're being rewired by our electronics temporary, as the tools we use adapt to natural human learning styles, or will we have to rewire ourselves to adapt to them? And how will we know which is happening to us? The transhuman movement is optimistic about how this will change us. We are already cyborgs to a degree; I've been told the first transhuman barrier fell with the invention of eyeglasses, making people part machine, although I suppose you could go back as far as walking sticks or wooden legs.

Perhaps we'll have to find stone-age tribes uncontaminated by smartphones to learn how our ancestors' minds worked. After all, human beings have probably been about as smart as we are now for at least a quarter of a million years or longer, and our minds have been changed before.

The leap into the ethereal world of symbolic thought happened only when we had enough contact with other minds to maintain an amount of knowledge that no single brain could hold. This was the leap from personal knowledge to a structure of knowledge capable of achieving things no one brain could. Upper Paleolithic culture, where the big leap seems to have occurred, seems to have developed more than once, appearing as population density increased and disappearing as droughts, famines or plagues reduced populations below the needed density, to appear again, and permanently take (we hope) about 35,000 years ago. It has changed the way we define humanity in ways that have been very hard on those who had not attained the new culture, as we've seen repeatedly.

More on the way symbolic thought has changed us, re-defined humanity, and sometimes led to tragic results, here, here, and here.

But if we can retain some of our old wiring through the new technology, perhaps we'll stay a little more human and a little less "trans."

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