Don’t Blame the Internet: We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to (Daniel Willingham)

Daniel Willingham is a columnist for RealClearEducation and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He also writes the Daniel Willingham science and education blog. This post appeared April 16, 2014        

A recent article in the Washington Post sounds a warning klaxon for our ability to read deeply. You’ve probably heard this argument elsewhere, made most forcefully by Nick Carr in the The Shallows: frequent users of the Web (i.e., most of us) are so in the habit of skittering from page to page, scanning for juicy bits of information but not really reading, that they have lost the ability to sit down and read prose from start to finish. I think the suggestion is probably wrong.

The first thing to make clear is that anyone who comments on this issue (including me) is guessing. There are simply not any data that address it directly. We might predict, for example, that scores on standardized reading tests would have dropped in the last 15 years or so (they haven’t) but such data are hardly definitive, as reading comprehension test scores are a product of many factors.

The Post article cites studies comparing reading on paper versus reading on screens, but that won’t address the issue, which concerns the long-term consequences of a particular type of reading. The Post also incorrectly says that paper is superior. Most studies indicate no difference between screens and paper for pleasure reading. For textbook reading, students take longer to read on screens, although comprehension is about the same. (Daniel & Willingham, 2012).

The article, like all the pieces I’ve seen on this topic, is short on data and long on individuals’

impressions. For example, teachers aver that students can no longer read long novels. Well, if we’re swapping stories, I — and most of my classmates — had a hard time with Faulkner and Joyce back in the early ‘80s, when I was an English major.

The truth is, probably, that the brain is simply not adaptable enough for such a radical change. Yes, the brain changes as a consequence of experience, but there are likely limits to this change, a point made by both Steve Pinker and Roger Schank when commenting on this issue. If our ability to deploy attention or to comprehend language processes were to undergo substantial change, the consequences would cascade through the entire cognitive system, and so the brain is probably too conservative for large-scale change.

For example, there’s a lot of overlap in the processes of reading and the processes used for understanding speech – processes that assign syntactic roles to words. Do we see any evidence that people are having a harder time understanding spoken language? Or does the problem lie in the mental processes that build understanding of larger blocks of language, as when we’re comprehending a story? If so, habitual Web users should have a hard time understanding complex narratives not just when they read, but in television and movies. No one should have watched The Sopranos, with its complicated, interweaving plotlines.

A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to. (I explore the possibility in some detail in my upcoming book, Raising Kids Who Read.) If I’m right, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully. The bad news is that we don’t want to.

Daniel, D. B. & Willingham, D. T. (2012). Electronic textbooks: Why the rush? Science, 335, 1569-1571.





Filed under technology use

11 responses to “Don’t Blame the Internet: We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to (Daniel Willingham)

  1. I suppose one can say, with Eric Mazur, that the plural of anecdote is not data, but Carr’s book begins with himself and his friends, and leads into a stimulating and suggestive reflection. And it is an urgent issue, intelligent reflection is helpful.

    I do think students read less. Part of it is the pace of school itself, the weekly homework and test sprints. But they’re watching videos more than reading, and listening to music more than watching videos. Music and film literacy are really important, but not so much covered in schools.

    The variables that can impact on reading are many. For myself, it’s not so much screen vs page, but the pace of being a teacher and a father. There’s just always something else to do! Fast!

  2. Reblogged this on The Sausage Machine and commented:
    Larry Cuban herblogt een artikel van Daniel Willingham van RealClearEducation. Onlangs heeft Wilfred Rubens al naar dit artikel verwezen in een overzichtsartikel: “De gevolgen van online lezen voor het onderwijs”. Daarin krijgt Jeroen Clemens alle aandacht n.a.v. zijn artikel in Levende Talen Magazine: “Het nieuwe lezen anders bekeken. Een uitdaging voor taalleraren”. Rubens verwijst ook naar Pedro De Bruyckere met een samenvatting van experimenteel onderzoek naar notities nemen op laptop vs. papier. Zou Jeroen Clemens het artikel over web reading van Daniel T. Willingham al hebben gelezen? Ik wil het hem graag aanbevelen.

  3. Good piece by Willingham. I’ve shared with Dr. Cuban before, but I recently published my dissertation which compared a traditional textbook with one created specifically for the iPad iBook. I used five measures (reading comprehension, electrodermal activity, cognitive load, satisfaction, semi-structured interviews) and generally have the same takeaway as Dr. Willingham noted:

    “The Post also incorrectly says that paper is superior. Most studies indicate no difference between screens and paper for pleasure reading. For textbook reading, students take longer to read on screens, although comprehension is about the same. (Daniel & Willingham, 2012).”

    I found no significant differences in comprehension or cognitive load, but students significantly favored the iPad format–perhaps because it is novel and newer. There were significant differences in electrodermal activity and comprehension correlates, perhaps suggesting that students were more “comfortable” or relaxed when successfully navigating the iPad iBook over the traditional textbook, but given the small n of my study, it is definitely too preliminary to make such a leap. Either way, we just don’t know enough about online learning environments–specifically reading–to know if it is making that big of a difference than when using traditional textbooks. Don Leu’s New Literacies work out of UConn is really helpful for researchers looking to better understand this complex dynamic.


    Dan Pollitt
    KU Center for Research on Learning

    • larrycuban

      Thanks again, Dan, for describing your study and its possible application to what Daniel Willingham posted.

  4. In this direction is there any performance difference with paper testing and on-line testing? I would like to read some research if there has been any. Much of the standardized testing for K-12 is going online and I suspect there are going to be statistically significant changes depending on the testing method.

  5. Pingback: Don't Blame the Internet: We Can Still Think an...

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