We live in paradoxical times.
On the one hand, we are getting smarter. Since the 1980s political scientist James Flynn has tracked the rise in IQs globally. For instance, between 1953 and 2006 IQs have gone up a whopping 17.4 points. Rising IQs are now known as the “Flynn Effect.”
On the other hand, only 23 percent of fourth-graders can identify George Washington as the first president of the United States. Comedian Jay Leno conducts informal street interviews with Americans about their knowledge of geography and current affairs. In a recent interview, a college student identified Europe as a country bordering the United States. Call it the “Leno Effect.”
What gives? Can we be getting smarter and less informed at the same time? Is the information highway really the disinformation byway?
I don’t think so. We are experiencing an unprecedented knowledge explosion. Today, we can see to the edge of eternity, unlock nature’s secret design, map our own genetic code, and instantly communicate with people around the world.
In 1938, author and visionary H.G. Wells published The World Brain. Long before the invention of the Internet he foresaw a “world encyclopedia” in which knowledge was free, universal, and authoritative. What was science fiction in 1938 is now a reality.
Now, we are wired together in a global virtual commons of learners. The marriage of human curiosity with shared intelligence is birthing a revolutionary networked ultra-intelligence available anywhere, any time.
So, we are definitely not getting dumber.
Yet, we educators dither. In my recent study of how digital natives learn, I found many of our antique notions of education are alive and wildly out of sync with the capacities and imaginations of non-linear learners. Today’s students are 21st-century learners.
When we try forcing the genie of networked intelligence back into the bottle of traditional textbooks, lectures, and multiple-choice evaluations, students are turned off. Assembly-line education makes no sense in the age of self-organizing intelligence.
Blended learning is a good step forward. It is difficult, however, to overstate the urgency of the moment. A recent study at Indiana University revealed that nearly all American high school students are bored in school.
The high school dropout rate hovers around 40 percent in many cities.
To engage today’s digital learners, we need a new ecology of learning shaped by the most dynamic qualities of ultra-intelligence: critical reflection, empirical reasoning, distributed intelligence, and metacognition.
I hope the Leno Effect can be reversed. A nation that doesn’t know the location of Mexico and Canada is leaning backward just as the trajectory of history is speeding forward. Time to stop dithering and start doing.
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