Computing Profession

No, We’re Not Losing Our Ability to Think Critically

Judy Robertson




I was interested to read Samuel Greengard’s article in the July issue of CACM. It’s about the impact of new technology on critical thinking, which is right up my street as a researcher in game based learning. The title of the article is "Are we losing our ability to think critically?" Reading titles like that usually makes me sigh, because the answer is often "probably not, no". Or possibly "It might or might not, but we don’t have any evidence either way". Admittedly people might be less likely to read articles with wishy-washy academic headlines like that.

The article quotes Patricia Greenfield’s views on the effect of new technologies on cognition. "A drop off in reading has possibly contributed to a decline in critical thinking" she comments (p18). Hang on. Who says there has been a decline in critical thinking? Where? And among whom, exactly? I hunted down a recent article by Dr Greenfield in Science to see if I could find some evidence for this assertion, but I couldn’t find any.

Dr Greenfield believes that although technologies such as television, video games and the Internet can help people to develop visual literacy, somehow this is at the expense of "deep processing; mindful knowledge aquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection" (p 71 of her Science article). Ouch!  This is a somewhat contradictory view point, as the boundaries between media are so blurred. If I read a high quality science blog and take part in the comments discussion why is this less critical and reflective than me sitting on the bus reading Heat magazine? Surely the message is at least as important as the medium here?

Nor is it clear that video games are detrimental to deep cognitive skills. Some theorists like James Paul Gee and Steve Johnson argue that playing computer games can help to develop skills such as reflection and hypothesis testing. To be fair, they’re a bit short on empirical evidence too, but as the CACM article points out, researchers such as Kurt Squire have found evidence on cognitive and motivational benefits from classroom studies on what children learn from using off the shelf games.

In my own research, I have studied the educational benefits of making games in the classroom, gathering data from around 500 10- 14 year olds. While there are interesting findings about the impact on new types of visual literacy, I have also found that making games in a supportive classroom environment can help children to develop "learning how to learn" skills. They learn how to reflect on their work through self and peer review. They test hypotheses as they debug their games. And they enjoy expressing their imaginative ideas in game form.

So don’t lock up your children with only a copy of "Pride and Prejudice" for company. Or at least not all the time. Instead, support their teachers in trying out the benefits of innovative technology alongside the best of traditional approaches. As Dr Greenfield puts it, children need a "balanced diet" of technologies to get the most out of their learning.

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