Monthly Archives: February 2018

Don’t Let Google Replace Your Brain

You’re sitting in front of TV one evening and someone asks, “Where is Kazakhstan?” What do you do if you don’t immediately know the answer?

Ask Google?

If you just ask Google you will be missing out on so much. Most worryingly, you will be missing out on giving your plastic brain an opportunity to improve itself, to develop new neuronal pathways and to strengthen the ones it already has.

If, before saying “OK Google” you try and think about it for a while you will be giving your brain the food and exercise it needs to thrive.

You will call on memory to remind you of all the things you have heard and read about Kazakhstan in the past – in newspapers, on TV, on the internet. You will sift through those memories, comparing them and discriminating between the ones that help and those that don’t.

You might try and visualise a map of Europe and the Middle East and see if you can associate the placement of Kazakhstan with the placement of other countries that you do know about.

Perhaps you will remember the old atlas on the shelf under the coffee table and you will pull it out and search for Kazakhstan. While you are looking in the atlas you may well notice where numbers of other countries, as well as Kazakhstan, are located. You will see the names of major cities and if the map is a relief map you discover Kazakhstan is largely made up of desert areas.

Someone else in the room might know a little more than you and together you might be able to come up with an answer.

There are so many good things you can do for your brain before asking Google. Yes, Google will probably post a map with a little red marker for Kazakhstan and it might feel like a great shortcut way to what you found in the atlas. But look at all the things your brain missed out on doing – remembering, comparing, associating, filtering, connecting, visualising, browsing and thinking interdependently with others.

Just as eating a diet of mushy ‘pre-chewed’ food would risk the health of your teeth, a regime of fast facts and information via Google risks the health and development of your brain.

Google is great. But don’t let it replace your brain!

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“School-wide Ban on Mobile Phones Gets Kids Learning and Talking”


Oh yes. I do understand. The kids are sitting around in the playground texting to each other instead of talking. The sports equipment is still sitting in the tub in the corner of the classroom because the kids aren’t playing at recess, they are on their phones. A stroll around the classroom during work time invariably reveals at least one kid taking a sneaky look at social media under the table.

Ban them at school! It’s a quick and easy solution. And it will work – while they are at school. But once they leave school and have their devices in their pockets again, what will they have learned?

It’s similar to achieving good behaviour in school by instilling fear of the strap. The strap didn’t teach kids about fairness, justice, honesty, respect, concentration or focus. It just taught kids to behave while the strap was around. If the reason for a child’s correct behaviour is fear of the back of dad’s hand, he’ll wait until dad’s not around and then do as he chooses. We know this. That’s why we banned corporal punishment in schools. Because it doesn’t work.

We need to teach our kids how to control their own behaviour, themselves, regardless of straps, wooden spoons and the backs of dads’ hands.

We need to teach our kids how to control their devices rather than letting their devices control them. Simply removing them from their grasp for a few hours each day doesn’t teach them anything about how to thrive in a digital world.

We should be embracing the digital. Our kids need to learn when to use these devices appropriately and how to use them effectively. They won’t learn those things of we simply take them away from them. You don’t teach a kid how to be safe on the road by not letting him drive.

Mobile phones and tablets can be powerful assets in the classroom, but both teachers and students need to learn how to use them. We provide powerful insights into the influence the digital world is having on how our kids think and how they learn in our book ‘Thinking In A Digital World”. We then describe practical strategies to help parents and teachers integrate these technologies into living and learning in ways that promote learning and thinking both within and outside the classroom.




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Logographs, Alphabets, Emojis and Giphs. What next?



Our first attempts at written communication were with burnt sticks on cave walls. We told each other about the big game we had hunted. In Egypt we got much cleverer and developed a complex set of hieroglyphs to perpetuate our thoughts and experiences for others to read at a later time. The Chinese were cleverly beavering away developing pictographs – little images that represented objects, and ideograms – more little pictures, this time representing concepts. All of these are logographs – little pictures that represent the ideas and things we want to communicate to others. Perhaps the biggest problem with logograms is that they tell us nothing about how to pronounce them.

It was around 1500BC when the Phoenicians decided to take a different route and develop an alphabet – a system of writing where the symbols each represented the sounds of the spoken language. That’s how we write today. We string sounds together to make words, and words together to make sentences.

This was a profound change because it changed our brains and how we think. The use of the alphabet is strictly linear – one letter after another in a straight line. We can point to the beginning of a word or a sentence and know with absolute certainty that the end of the word or sentence will be at the end of the line of letters. This linear system influenced everything. It imposed a particular kind of order on our experience of the world.

At first, it only influenced the literate – a small, privileged minority. The invention of the printing press made books available to the masses and then their brains began to change too. The world became linear. We expressed time as a straight line – past – present – future. Music was written down in straight lines. Stories progressed in straight lines from the introduction, through the various episodes of the plot to the final denouement. We were taught to argue in straight lines, one step at a time, and if we didn’t understand we would say, “I don’t follow you.”

Enter the digital world. We learn that time isn’t necessarily a straight line at all – there is something called a time-space continuum and space certainly doesn’t exist in straight lines. Jazz is full of riffs and recursive elements. Intuition is becoming respectable again. When we read on the internet we switch and shift constantly, jumping from one hyperlink to another. Perhaps we become so enmeshed in the world wide web that we never get back to where we started at all. Movies and television stories constantly move back and forth in time and often end with frustrating question marks and ambiguous conclusions. The straight line is giving way to the web.

The arrival of the SMS has revolutionised the way we communicate with each other. Youngsters hardly ever use the telephone to actually phone anyone. They text. And although it looks as though their texts are still based on the good old alphabet, the link is starting to break down. CUL8R – is a whole new way of writing. Letters and numbers have become symbols for whole words rather than standing for a single sound. Our ‘alphabet’ is turning into logographs. Ask any eighteen year old what LOL, or ROFL means and they will have no hesitation in telling you. They no longer ‘spell it out’ because they are moving away from the linear alphabet. This is changing the way they think too, but that’s a whole other story for another time.

Among the LOLs and ROFLs we also see little round faces with stylised expressions. These emojis pepper the logographs because we still need to communicate the more subtle elements of communication – things like our feelings. The range of emojis is growing at an astounding rate and they have gone way beyond little yellow faces. Each one is a small ideograph – a picture representing a concept.

And the giph is yet another attempt to overcome the things that this new, infant script is lacking. Giphs are tiny, one-second videos that loop over and over. Frequently they show a face dynamically expressing a particular emotion. The eyebrows pop, the mouth sneers, the face breaks into an enthusiastic laugh. Now we can communicate the subtleties of body language without the use of an alphabet. That’s impossible to do with a logograph.

In this digital age we increasingly think in complex, intersecting webs rather than in straight lines. Whether we will so adapt the linear alphabet with emojis and giphs that it becomes a new form of written communication remains to be seen. This generation’s brains are wired differently from ours. One thing we can be certain of is that they will mould the world to suit themselves, and that will include all the ways we communicate. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.




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Understanding social media – safety

In our most recent book, “Thinking In A Digital World”, we explore the changes in our world as a result of digital media. The digital world is pervasive and here to stay. So is social media. It’s up to the grown-ups to understand it and help our kids navigate it safely and use it productively, creatively and enjoyably.

Let’s look at safety first.

Over two billion people actively use Facebook each month. If your privacy settings are set to “public”, you are giving them all access to your thoughts and images. Is this what you want for yourself? More importantly, is this what you want for your children?

The internet has virtually unlimited memory. The photos you posted two years ago? They are still there. The photo you posted and then deleted? It’s still there too. Nothing disappears and clever people can find it all. Their motives are not always benign.

Take a look at the blue band across the top of your Facebook page. You will see a tiny down arrow on the far right. Click on that and then select ‘settings’. This will take you to the General Settings page. On the left-hand side, there is a panel – select ‘privacy’ .

Now you can decide just how widely you want your posts to circulate. My Facebook privacy is set to ‘friends’ for everything. I’m not interested in ‘friends of friends’ seeing my posts, because if I use that setting I may as well make everything ‘public’ and accessible to the entire two billion users. The moment I allow ‘friends of friends’ to see my posts, I have lost control.

I don’t include my phone number when invited to by Facebook. If a friend wants my phone number I have the opportunity to send it to them via private message. I don’t want the world, or even all the people on my Facebook friends list, to have my phone number.

I also have the opportunity on this page to check and change the audience for posts that in the past I may have set as accessible to public or friends of friends. That will limit any future access to those posts of mine, but it will have no impact at all on the people who have already seen them.

I have set the visibility of my friends list to ‘friends’. I thought about setting it to ‘only me’ because that gives me the tightest control, but this is a social medium after all, and I don’t mind my friends knowing who I have as a friend.

I don’t want to find myself showing up on a variety of search engines and so I have selected ‘no’ when asked if I want search engines other than Facebook to see me.

As an adult, I have the right to make my Facebook life as open or as closed as I choose. I made a decision a long time ago to restrict my friends to people I had actually met face to face. This changed when I discovered a very small number of people on forums with whom I had been exchanging ideas over an extended period.

I have allowed ‘friends of friends’ to send friend requests and sometimes I regretfully reject requests from people I have never met. These requests can arise because I have commented on a friend’s post and one of their friends is interested in my comment and would like to interact more with me. But I don’t want hundreds of friends on my personal Facebook page. I want the concept of ‘friend’ to bear some similarity in the digital world to its meaning in the physical world. On the other hand I know there may be a few exceptions.

Finally, if you look again at the panel on the left you will see the ‘blocking’ link. Select that and see how you can remove people who are becoming tiresome, offensive or threatening. This is perhaps the control we need to point out more than any other to our children. I read with dismay the stories of people being bullied online. It’s hard to be bullied by someone if you no longer listen to them. If I find myself being insulted, abused or bullied online I have options.

If I started the thread, I can delete it.

If there is a particular person being objectionable, I can block them.

Grown-ups and kids

As an adult, I can choose for myself how private I want to be. I like my privacy, but I also like to share thoughts and experiences with others. My privacy settings reflect that.

Our children need to be kept safe until they are old enough and wise enough to judge people and their own safety. Until that time I advise setting privacy to ‘friends’ only, and to emphasize the ability to delete and block.

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