I must confess I sometimes wonder what the great thinkers and educators of previous generations could have accomplished if equipped with the digital tools and resources of our present day. One of the most prolific and brilliant reading researchers that influenced my thinking and research was Jeanne Chall.
Years ago, I had the honor of sitting in her apartment for tea when I spotted an old Smith Corona typewriter on her kitchen table. This obsolete piece of equipment, likely unheard of by our latest generation, was Chall’s means for writing her latest manuscript. It was from this solitary perch—humbly furnished, without even a standard PC—that Chall so greatly influenced the reading-research community, more than any of our current scholars with all of our technological tools.
Imagine how B.F. Skinner could have catapulted advances in behaviorism and promoted his reinforcement theory with the use of big data, advanced analytics, and social media. Or imagine Jean Piaget tweeting his latest observations and thoughts as his three daughters grew up. Considering all the hope and hype surrounding big data, Piaget did an admirable job with his N of 3! And let’s not forget his lack of randomized controlled designs and contrast groups.
Or how about if we imagine that maybe, just maybe, the breakthrough ideas and insights of these legendary minds of the 20th century were the byproduct of deep, sustained thought and observations. There is no question that our digital toolkits allow us to analyze and publish data faster, connect immediately to scholars around the globe, and disseminate findings instantly. While I love our tools and resources, I have become convinced that we have also become prisoners to them.
The sheer volume of “stuff” that our digital tools shackle us with is astounding. According to a report from the Radicati Group, a market-research company, 144.8 billion emails were sent on a daily basis in 2012. This volume results in employees’ reporting that they spend 28 percent of their time in their inboxes! If email volume does not drown out any time to think, let’s not forget texting and tweeting. A total of 8.6 trillion text messages are sent annually, and, as Twitter turns 7 years old, we are sending more than 400 million tweets per day.
In an attempt to free myself of my electronic shackles, I am unplugging. My goal is to have at least one day a week in which I read closely and deliberately, take time to reflect and write, and simply think. So every Thursday I am unplugging and encouraging my staff to do so as well in a program I am calling TWEET (Thursday We are Exempted from Email Text and Tweets).
As the father of three Facebook-posting, tweet-sending children, I am confident that if Piaget had tweeted his observations, his children would have rebelled with tweets, blogs, and the ultimate rejection: Facebook unfriending. In a world consumed by social media and driven by technologies, it will be interesting to see if the research of current scholars influences future educational practice as much as the work of our historical scholars has over the years. Time will tell, and I am sure someone will blog, tweet, or Gmail-chat me the answer—but, please, not on Thursday!
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as What If Piaget Had Tweeted?