Finding and losing our way

What do we gain and what do we lose when we learn a new technology?

Many years ago my wife, who was then an elementary school art teacher in a suburb of Boston, came home one day with some astonishing news: third graders no longer knew how to cut with scissors. She had to re-design part of the art curriculum; she could no longer assume that children had this basic (I suppose once “cutting edge”) skill.

How did this happen, I wondered. My theory was that computers were to blame, that the time parents in previous generations would have spent helping children learn how to use basic hand tools (including glue, tape, scissors and paper punches) had given way to using computers to word process and play computer games. Also, my wife thought that in the early grades the focus had moved away from skills like manipulating materials to computer skills. Ten years later the trend had not reversed. Although children had even better digital abilities, with some skills they could no longer “cut it” .

About the same time, when the price of pocket calculators dropped so that every American could afford one, and when they began to be allowed on tests, some teachers were concerned that students would lose some math skills. They were right; many children and young people can no longer do long division. (I can, but I haven’t used the skill in years.) On the other hand, perhaps some of those children are learning more math thinking and reasoning skills now that they don’t have to spend so much time learning how to do the calculations by hand. Still, what if – as Revolution, a new post-apocalyptic television show asks us to imagine – the world should lose all electricity…. I suppose if this were to happen there would be more serious concerns than doing long division.

Now, Eiizabeth Spelke, Director of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies at Harvard, is concerned about what Harvard students (and other Americans) may be losing in navigational skills because of their reliance on GPS technology.

Spelke has done cognitive skills research in an Amazon village in Brazil with uneducated Munduruku adults whose navigation skills equal or exceed Harvard undergraduates’. Spelke also found no differences in navigation skills based on gender.
‘I am worried we’re all going to be using GPSes all the time,’ Spelke said. ‘The Mundurukus are better than Harvard students because they have to keep navigating all the time.’
“Drivers in modern societies rely heavily on GPS navigation. Looking at a map is almost old-fashioned.”
‘I’m worried it will cause our systems to atrophy,’ Spelke said. ‘We’re doing this enormous experiment on ourselves and our children and grandchildren,’ she said. ‘Innate systems disappear if you don’t use them. It’s a real question of what’s going to happen with all this.’

Source: Finding our way: Researcher expands on human navigation By Judy Rakowsky, Harvard Correspondent, Harvard Gazette , Harvard Science, Science and Engineering at Harvard University. Retrieved 9.25.12 from

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