Q & A: Clive Thompson, author of "Smarter Than You Think"

If you’re worried about how technology is reshaping our lives, then it’s worth taking time to read Clive Thompson’s new book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better,” which was released today. For starters, Thompson, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired, explains that our freakouts about the Internet are not new; the advent of the printing press provoked similar anxiety. Through powerful anecdotes, he goes on to explain how technology has made us better: from allowing us to document our personal and cultural memories more meticulously to increased self-expression to an “ambient awareness” of others.

Thompson dedicated a chapter to the “digital school,” visiting numerous classrooms and talking to many teachers about how technology can improve learning. Amplify caught up with him to talk about what he learned.

What’s the lesson you most want people to take away from the education chapter of the book?

When it comes to education, the big challenge and opportunity is to engage in types of learning that are either really hard or impossible to do with traditional tools (pencils, paper, chalkboards, etc.). I wanted to find out how teachers are using tech to help them teach, and what they’ve found are good things to do. I looked at public schools and underfunded ones; I was interested in situations where there were not a lot of resources and where teachers were facing all sorts of challenges—a lot of immigrant children with busy, working parents, ESL issues, etc. There are a couple of simple and powerful things that you can do that are different and new, and that are difficult or impossible to do with traditional teaching.

I talk a lot in the book about public thinking; we’ve made this transition from a society where very few people wrote down what they were thinking to one where a huge amount of people, a plurality of people, do that all the time now. Having an audience really matters when you are expressing yourself. When you have to explain it someone else, in a paragraph, or even in a tweet, you start scrutinizing what you’re saying. Study after study shows the audience effect is powerful.

In classrooms, for decades they’ve been struggling to get kids to care about writing. As a student, you write an essay and you know who is going to read it—your teacher. And he or she is being paid to read it. It’s an inauthentic audience, so we realize the task is artificial and we don’t throw our back into it. Teachers were always trying to find ways for kids to do projects and show them to people—and along came the ability for students to publish things online. This has had a catalytic effect. Suddenly, students are working unbelievably hard. We know that writing a lot is part of how you get better. This school in New Zealand had students blog, and comments showed up from adults they don’t know, and the kids realized what they were writing actually mattered. They started working so much harder and developed amazing critical-thinking skills. These kids were leaping up to this stuff—higher-order thinking skills, like perspective-taking.

Public thinking is tremendously powerful, and it can be done with almost anything, if you have a little hardware. It’s not expensive.

What about the “gamification” of learning? Did you find that it’s positive?

Teachers are using video games to push kids in interesting critical-thinking modes. Why don’t we get them writing, thinking and talking about what they mean, teachers have said—write a game guide where you have to explain to someone what’s going on in the game. Kids would rise to it; they were reading and writing better than ever before. Kids with serious reading problems were reading gaming magazines, up to six grade levels higher than their reading level. Anytime you can take something kids are passionate about and make it the focus of what they’re reading and writing about, that’s great.

Has technology made education more personalized, from what you observed?

There’s a wealth of resources online—from Khan Academy to what’s published by universities—and teachers are using this stuff to customize teaching for their classroom. Usually, 25 percent of the students already get a concept, and 25 percent are really struggling, so, at best, teachers are talking to 50 percent of the class. Every teacher knows this; it’s not a shocker. Teachers have always wanted to customize, but it’s never been that easy to do. Now, with the explosion of mostly free educational materials online, they’ve been able to customize to a remarkable degree. Precocious kids can blow through Khan Academy modules, giving teachers more free time to work with the kids who are struggling. These are incredibly passionate teachers who are doing this; it’s astonishing.

The Internet also allows more teachers to go deep into the things students are innately interested in. What makes children want to learn—and want to learn how to learn—those things are a lot easier to teach when the students are diving deep into something they’re interested in. The limit we always had was a finite number of textbooks, etc., so you had to drag kids back to the usual things. Now, if a student is interested in basketball, a teacher can let him learn and explore that deeply—the psychology of it, the economics of it, the politics of it, the statistics of it. Technology has opened up the world to a small school with limited resources.

There’s no magic bullet to get students interested in the things that are important—history, the Constitution, etc.—but every teacher has told me that once you allow a student to explore something he or she is innately interested in, it’s a mind-broadening thing, and it results in the student bumping into all kinds of other things they wouldn’t have otherwise. All good teachers know how to do this; they just need the resources to be able to pull it in.

Are there specific technology-enabled tools that really enhance learning, in your opinion?

Digital dashboards that show teachers and students in real time how well the students are doing are incredibly powerful. It takes the previously invisible dynamics of learning and makes them visible. Teachers are always aware that they’re missing what’s going on in students’ brains—if they can find out in the moment and get a student an intervention, that’s so much better.

The students also love these dashboards, because learning is mysterious to them, too. Seeing their progression or lack of progression was enormously exciting and interesting to them. They developed their own mental models and meta-cognition about how their minds work. One student said to me, “I used to think learning was just this steady trudging up a hill.” He realized it was actually a bunch of flat stretches followed by a sudden bump, then another plateau, then another bump. It was an epiphany, and it made him more resilient in the face of failure. He realized it was quite normal for him to grind his wheels on something—he wasn’t stupid, his mind was just coming together on something—and then he would have this burst. That’s an experience that it’s difficult for a student to have without technology.

The lesson, that all these teachers and students told me, is that technology is good at making the invisible visible. People have these magical ideas about technology, but all the good teachers know they’re not true. But, if they’re given the right support with the technology, they can do absolutely incredible things, and so can the students.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.