September 29, 2009

Young and addicted to social networks: and they've never written so much

Mads Berg Illustration from Wired Magazine

Clive Thompson in Wired has summed up some definitive research that backs up what many of us have been saying from our guts for years: kids have never been reading and writing so much, and with the proliferation of social networks and mobile messaging this stat will only increase with time:

Andrea Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

Not only that but the writing is of an excellent technical standard, with status updates training our youngsters in the kind of "haiku-like concision" that their verbose parents could only dream of.

It's the kind of research that would have proven handy 18 months or so ago, when I had helped colleagues design some of the most forward-thinking literacy policies in the world, where text messages, computer games and blogs were deemed suitable 'texts' to study alongside the great classics. I got a bit of a hard time for condoning this at the time, and still get a rocky ride in believing that iPhones and iPod Touches could be amongst the digital toolkits in which our most reluctant readers might find the reading bug.

But it still felt right, and feels more right than ever now. Go read, digest and share.

Pic by Mads Berg in Wired.

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A very interesting study indeed. Having taught at the university level for 18 years in Canada, the findings of this study line up with some tendencies I have noticed.
The first 10 years or so of my teaching career, I noticed a steady decline in the quality of my students' written work from year to year. However, I have within the past 5 years or so been pleasantly surprised to see a steady increase in quality, coherence, and "expressiveness". Students seem more inclined to write profusely on subjects that aren't necessarily close to their heart. It's almost as if some kind of blockage has been removed. Of course this isn't the case for all of them, just a general trend I have noticed.
What still concerns me though is the quality of thought reflected in their writing. Much of it is still more self-referential and opinion-based than I think is constructive in a formal educational setting.
I hope the trend observed by professor Lunsford leads young people to enhance their ability to do complex analysis and to be able to follow multi-layered, subtle arguments. My feeling is that most of what they hear are sound bites, which leads them to comprehend the world in short bursts of like/dislike, black/white, yes/no where questions and answers are hard and sharp, lacking texture and shading.
Clarity of expression tends to reflect clarity of thought, and perhaps even helps cultivate it. The findings of the Stanford study are encouraging indeed.

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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