“Too Dumb . . . ” Confuses a Tool and Its Use

Stewart-m120x148In “Too Dumb for Complex Texts,” Mark Bauerlein argues that students’ ability to comprehend complex texts has been diminished by the “digital diversions” that are increasingly a part of their lives. However, faulting technology for students’ inability to read complex texts confuses a tool and its use.

Certainly, technology has the potential to be a distraction from close readings of complex texts, but so can a host of other things. As educators, we must prepare students not only for college-level reading, but also for jobs that will provide a myriad of distractions and tasks to be juggled. A key part of our responsibility is to model and to offer students opportunities to practice ways of interacting with technology without veering into the path of least resistance.

In “Wired for Reflection,” I noted that technology affords students the ability to reexamine and reflect on their work. Digital writing need not be “hastily written and consumed,” as Bauerlein suggests. Digital technology can also be used to enhance reading of complex texts by creating the ability to preserve and extend conversations around the text.

Bauerlein argues that the web reaffirms “the validity of [students’] outlook and the sufficiency of their selves.” The web, however, might just as likely do the opposite. While The Federalist Papers, which Bauerlein cites as an example of a complex text, was once discussed at the local tavern, now it can be debated on a class blog or Ning.

Whether through social bookmarking and annotating or a series of comments following an article posted online, digital technology creates easy access for voices of challenge to a student’s reading of a text from within the class community or across the world.

Post submitted by Meredith Stewart, 6th grade language arts and 6th and 12th grade history teacher at Cary Academy, Cary, N.C. She blogs at http://meredithstewart.com.


  1. Hi Meredith,
    I’m not sure I agree with you here. I’m pretty convinced by McLuhan that the medium IS the message, so I don’t think that a “tool and its use” can be separated, as your title suggests.
    I do agree with you that we need to teach students to deal effectively with technology but the (admittedly few) business sources I read also suggest a similar tension between our increased connectivity and an individual’s ability to engage in deep reflection. The answer in many sources is not “use the tool differently,” it’s “stop using the tool.”
    And I don’t believe it’s either/or: your work suggests some great ways to use technology in the classroom. It’s just that there’s a time/place for various media.
    (I should add that I’m holding out for the iPad 2.0: I’m interested to see how my own views change once I start reading all “texts” on a tablet.)

  2. Meredith,
    I submit the following question for consideration. Is “college-level reading” archaic for the needs of the 21st Century learner?
    The reason I ask; while the majority of PK-12 organizations continue to rely heavily on 19th Century modes of operation, many universities appear to be well-entrenched in 18th Century mode.

  3. Jeff,
    In some ways, I think yes. It’s one of the reasons I don’t think “college readiness” should be the only goal of a K-12 education. I’d rather see us focused on helping kids read and think critically and creatively. I recognize, though, that as a society, we still see a college degree as a mark of aptitude/quality. So I’m not arguing we discount college prep entirely, I just don’t think we hold it up as the be all end all.

  4. Meredith,
    I must say that I have to agree with you. Working in an urban middle school in NYC, I do not think that just reading or just knowing mathematics is at all enough for the students to succeed out in the real world of the 21st century. The use of technology, computer based research, computer based learning, and technology based initiatives is what will make our students succeed in the 21st century. Expecially in an urban school, this is what will make our students stand out.

  5. Inna,
    I agree with the both of you( Meredith). I think we have to teach student to learn how to apply the knowledge taught in various forms. Technology is a reality. Most successful business use technology in their daily task to communicate with its stakeholders. Students today must be taught how to use the Ipad, Ipod, blogs etc in order to be accessible as well as competitive in the future.

  6. The huge amount of both valuable and trash information avalaible on the web makes the teaching of a profitable use of technology mandatory. Almost every kid knows how to use a Tablet, a laptop or a console (nowdays with lots of online functions), as every kid is able to read. Just as not everyone knows how to absorb the information out of a book and that IS taught in class in order to correct that, web use should be coached aswell.


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