Friday, March 30, 2007

'Triumph of the Airheads'

Author: Shelley Gare

It does seem these day that no one is very interested in serious issues and are only to happy to reduce serious arguments to black and white - anything to avoid thinking about an issue.

Consider the simplicity of either the Cambridge or the NCEA issue. The simple pass fail exam model is easier to understand than a model dedicated to giving all students a degree of success.

Or the current 'smacking bill' issue - a name developed by its opponents to stop thinking in its tracks.

After listening to author Shelley Gare this lightweight thinking makes sense - she calls it 'airhead thinking'.

She believes that we are creating a world of superficial airhead thinking. This, she believes, is a result of our education system, the flood of information technology, shallow lifestyle magazines, reality TV and uncontrollable consumerism. All these lead to a, 'look at me', or a, 'me first' society that refuse to take responsibility if things go wrong.

Two major trends have created the 'airhead problem'. One is the economic market rationalism of recent decades that makes financial wealth the ultimate mark of success. Everything has been reduced to simple measurement and accountability - if it can't be measured then it can't be important. The other trend is what has been called 'post modernism' . Old certainties have been replaced by a 'grab bag of values' - no value being more important than any other. This retreat into frivolity is compounded a general feeling of powerlessness to make a difference that many people feel.

The development of the 'triumph of airheads' is supported by neuroscience research which indicates as our brains are continually bombarded by information our ability to reflect is being eroded away. Our society is literally 'shaping our brains', what is not being used is 'pruned', and neural pathways develop to cope with the rush of information being developed. As a result we don't think deeply and are attracted to novelty and triviality. Gare calls this the 'Paris Hilton effect' or the 'Big Brother cult' where superficial attractiveness is almost all there is. Light entertainment is the name of the game; 'the attraction of the simple and the silly'. Narcism - too much about 'me', 'my' self esteem and a corresponding casualness, or empathy, about people in need.

As a result important issues are given little thought - often until it is too late. Climate warming, water shortage, the growing gap between the rich and the poor and the sustainability of the planet are all such issues. There is even, she believes, a dislike of the serious.

Education comes in for criticism as well. Gare believes that the eduction children get is to shallow as a result many students leave with poor communication skills particularly literacy and numeracy and with no real feeling or understanding of other people in the world.

I have sympathy with her view about education although I am not a 'back to basics' person , unless, that is a love of learning is seen as basic. Teachers have had to implement complicated technocratic measurable curriculums where what is really important (or basic) is all too often lost. It has become a game of trivial pursuits or achieving targets and has contributed to the 'dumbing down of our society'.

What is required to stop this drift into 'airhead- ism' is an education system that encourages students to study rich topics in real depth to avoid shallow thinking. And, to please people like Shelley Gare, students who have the ability to write , speak, read, do basic maths and, most of all, to think.

This shouldn't be too hard to do if the technocrats and their endless new answers to solve the problems that have they have created would get out of the way.

It is only in schools dedicated to quality in depth learning that students minds can be shaped, to develop the reflectiveness required, to face up to the important issues that threaten to overwhelm us.

In the meantime it seem as a society happy to play the fiddle while Rome burns.

Our brains , she says, have been forced underground while gullible 'airheads' rule supreme.

As Gare says, 'Certainly, I can't remember a time in my life when society seems to have been more willfully delighted by ignorance, more stupendously spendthrift, more mind-blowingly uninterested in anything but the self gratification possible in the next five minutes.'

Lets start doing fewer thing well in our schools and making thinking viable again.


Anonymous said...

What we need is national 'conversation' about what kind of country we want to become - and what we need to do about both protecting and using our resources wisely. When this is done we need to consider what changes we need to make in such areas as education. I like the idea of personalsing learning and for students to dig deeply into issues by doing fewer things well.

Anonymous said...

John Keys - for number one simplistic 'airhead' for reducing the joy of learning to 3R testing! He should limit his accountancy skills to making money.

Unknown said...

"What is required to stop this drift into 'airhead- ism' is an education system that encourages students to study rich topics in real depth to avoid shallow thinking. And, to please people like Shelley Gare, students who have the ability to write , speak, read, do basic maths and, most of all, to think."

This is an excellent definition of what education ought to be. But we are a long way from it - around the World national systems are going in a different direction. How can we make a difference?

I suggest that those who run schools look at their output - consider the profile of the student that you want to have graduate from your school. Problem solvers? Globally aware? Prepared to walk the talk for a sustainable future? Concerned for peace in the World?

Then backwards plan in the environment and the activities that will enable the profile to become reality. Include the "state" or "national" or "international (IB)" requirements? Yes, of course - but aim as high as possible in your circumstances.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Couldn't agree more George but before a country looks at the kind of citizens it wants to graduate there needs to be a national conversation about where we, as a country, want to to go, or be seen as, in the 21stC. What be the underpinning values of such a new 'story'? Then we could backward plan from there. The education system would be a vital part of such a transforamation.

Unknown said...

Perhaps I am not able to see it from a country perspective, Bruce.
I would have thought that trying to obtain a national consensus would be impossible, given the wide range of views out there. Why not work at community levels where communities can decide their own priorities? My point that there is strength in a diversity of outputs and that this is highly desirable.
Perhaps I have no experience in working in a system which is trying to standardise and work to a common denominator, and that these views are therefore totally unworkable in your national system.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Don't get me wrong George - I just like the idea of getting some general consensus in the broadest sense nationally. Can't see it happenning but just like the idea.

That's the 'top down' leadership bit - about setting broad direction and then creating conditions to allow the local creative diversity that is required to develop new ideas and possibilities. The more diversity the better - the best ideaa will spread given the right conditions.

I see no place for the current need to standardize and 'account' for everything -'just enough to keep the herd roughly pointed West!'

Only through local action will anything ever change. 'Top down' reform by itself has changed little - particularly in education.

So I guess I like the idea of 'thinking globally and acting locally' - both interacting.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Bruce!

An interesting discussion here.

I have just laid my hands on a copy of the book by Shelley Gare and I've started reading it = very interesting read indeed. I'll let you know how I get on :)

Catchya later