Making your mind up – thoughts on “Mind Change” by Baroness Susan Greenfield

Making your mind up – thoughts on “Mind Change” by Baroness Susan Greenfield

I tend to read books a couple of years after they’ve hit the shelves. This is not deliberate, it’s more a perpetual state of not quite catching up, but tardiness has its advantages. Reading new material alongside critical responses is to be recommended.

The process of digesting a text, seeing critical responses and then forming an opinion gives a unique hit of Trivium-esque learning (with reference to Martin Robinson’s “Trivium”).

1: Grammar (the reading of the text);

2: Dialectic (the reaction, critical review and other opinions considered, tested);

3: Rhetoric (an opinion launched).

(You can read my review of “Trivium” here.)

In this spirit I read Baroness Susan Greenfield’s “Mind Change” – Penguin, 2014.  I was aware that Greenfield’s work had provoked controversy on publication. I alluded to the “spat” with Professor Dorothy Bishop and other academics last year in an address I gave to BSN colleagues about the potential impact pervasive technology has on the minds of young people.

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As educators we have to engage intelligently with this debate.

In brief, and hopefully without being too reductive, Greenfield’s premise is that technology is changing what it means to be human. That children’s brains are being re-wired by search engines and high-octane virtual interactions to the detriment of attention spans and social skills. The “Mind Change” title is designed to resonate with the fear and scientific basis of “Climate Change.”

Greenfield was criticised largely because the research isn’t really in place to make these assertions, although throughout the book references to small-scale studies are held up hopefully to fulfil the task. Although not entirely negative about the impact of technology on young minds, the balance of Greenfield’s material suggests partiality.

But it’s too easy to stereotype her thinking into shrill, red-top doom-mongering. It’s easy to be guilty of lazy thinking, influenced by the last thing we’ve read, such as a scathing review, or by delving into our own echo-chambers. One can disagree with Greenfield’s extrapolated implications for society but the book is worth reading for its provocations.

“Mind Change” offers interesting interpretations of brain function and specifically “thinking”. I liked the assertion that only the brain and people make new connections. Computers don’t. A computer’s experience is algorithmic – a human’s is unique. I’m hanging on to that concept.

As a parent of three teen “gamers” and the Principal of a school in which the parent voice is sometimes concerned about the impact of screen-time, I understand the attraction of the concept of “Mind Change”. But in wrestling with the transmission of the human tradition and navigating the accelerating world of the new, I fear we all too readily make assumptions about young people’s ability to imagine and direct their own future. It was ever thus. This is probably Greenfield’s blindspot.

As parents and educators we need to be there and we need to get out of the way. Knowing when to do which has always been the challenge of parenting and teaching.

Follow José Picardo for balanced perspectives on the benefits of educational technology and read Martin Robinson’s latest post about the dangers of predicting the future.

And do read “Mind Change” – even though it took a kicking in the press.

All will set you thinking. Please do share these thoughts below.