Making Sure Tech Makes You Smarter

Can a calculator make you smarter? The QAMA calculator can. You use it just like a regular calculator, plugging in the numbers of the problem you want to solve — but QAMA won’t give you the answer until you provide an accurate estimate of what that answer will be.

If your estimate is way off, you’ll have to go back to the problem and see where you went wrong. If your estimate is close, QAMA (developed by Ilan Samson, an “inventor-in-residence” at the University of California, San Diego) will serve up the precise solution, and you can compare it to your own guess. Either way, you’ll learn a lot more than if you simply copied the answer that a calculator spit out.

Ever since journalist Nicholas Carr posed a provocative question—“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—in a widely-read 2008 Atlantic magazine article, we’ve been arguing about whether the new generation of digital devices is leading us to become smarter, or stupider, than we were before. Now psychologists and cognitive scientists are beginning to deliver their verdicts. Here, the research on an array of technological helpers:

Calculators. Cognitive scientists long ago identified the “generation effect” — the fact that we understand and remember answers that we generate ourselves better than those that are provided us (by a calculator, for instance). But a study published last year in the Journal of Educational Psychology found that adults who tried to solve arithmetic problems on their own but then obtained the answer from a calculator did just as well on a later test as those who didn’t use calculators at all. If you don’t have a QAMA calculator around, you can approximate its effects by holding off using a traditional calculator until you’ve tried to come up with a solution yourself.

Auto-complete. Frequent users of smartphones quickly get used to the “auto-complete” function of their devices—the way they need only type a few letters and the phone fills in the rest. Maybe too used to it, in fact. This handy function seems to make adolescent users faster, but less accurate, when responding to a battery of cognitive tests, according to research published in 2009 in the journal Bioelectromagnetics.

Texting. A study led by researchers at the University of Coventry in Britain surveyed a group of eight- to twelve-year-olds about their texting habits, then asked them to write a sample text in the lab. The scientists found that kids who sent three or more text messages a day had significantly lower scores on literacy tests than children who sent none. But those children who, when asked to write a text message, showed greater use of text abbreviations (like “c u l8r” for “see you later”) tended to score higher on a measure of verbal reasoning ability—likely because the condensed language of texting requires an awareness of how sounds relate to written English.

Search engines. The ready availability of search engines is changing the way we use our memories, reported psychologist Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University in a study published in Science in 2011. When people expect to have future access to information, Sparrow wrote, “they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” It’s good to know where to find the information you need—but decades of cognitive science research shows that skills like critical thinking and problem-solving can be developed only in the context of factual knowledge. In other words, you’ve got to have knowledge stored in your head, not just in your computer.

Email. Email is a convenient way to communicate, but trying to answer messages while also completing other work makes us measurably less intelligent. Glenn Wilson, psychiatrist at King’s College London University, monitored employees over the course of a workday and found that those who divided their attention between email and other tasks experienced a 10-point decline in IQ. Their decrease in intellectual ability was as great as if they’d missed a whole night’s sleep, and twice as great as if they’d been smoking marijuana. For every technological trap, however, there’s a technological solution: When you need to get work done, use Freedom or another such program that will shut down your access to the Internet for a predetermined period of time.

Websites. Back in 2001, reading specialists Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich reported in the Journal of Direct Instruction that scores on a test of general knowledge were highest among people who read newspapers, magazines and books, and lowest among those who watched a lot of TV. Watching television, they noted, is “negatively associated with knowledge acquisition” — except when the TV watching involved public television, news, or documentary programs. Cunningham and Stanovich didn’t look at Internet use, but the same information divide exists online: high-quality, accurate information, and, well, fluff.

So does technology make us stupid, or smart? The answer is “both,” and the choice is up to us.

Brilliant readers, do you find that your technology effectively makes you smarter—or less smart? Please share your thoughts below.

5 Responses to “Making Sure Tech Makes You Smarter”

  1. Dorai Thodla says:

    I think some of these tools enable us to do things we could not do before. Take search for example. If I had a question on how many branches of Mathematics exist today, the only way to get an answer is to walk to a library and scan through a bunch of books. Search brings us the answer (probably a wikipedia page on Math) where all that information is delivered. I can click through various hyperlinks to learn more.

    So search makes us smarter or dumber? Would you like to page through a dictionary when you want to find the meaning of a word or look up some fact?

    Frankly some tools may make us do less work than others. Is that necessarily bad? I don’t know. Without Twitter/Facebook, I would not have access to a discussion like this.

    I like your summary. Do tools make us smarter or dumber? Both. I tend towards making us smarter a bit more because I use tools to do the boring work and work that I cannot get done otherwise.

  2. John Bennett says:

    Wow – I really like the new calculator idea!!! I’d be for a requirement that students do / show the estimate before using the calculator; the new one makes this easier to require I guess. Fact is the estimate is one way (not only, not foolproof) to “check” your calculator use. I remember “back when dirt was clear – so long ago it wasn’t dirty yet” with slide rules, one had to do the estimate to set the decimal point!!!

    In general, the use of technology can be important – IF its use is determined by previous efforts to select the solution approach, justifying the technology use. PBL is my choice of pedagogy for use with students AND my personal use as well!

    As an educator, regardless of use or non-use of technology, I and all educators know that learning is optional. Regularly hear “Dr. Bennett, I can’t believe I got such a poor grade; I studied so long and so well!” Either they studied the wrong material or they they really didn’t study to learn effectively! We need to work with students to help them learn how to learn!!! AND we need to assess their efforts to make sure they indeed did learn how to learn!!!

  3. I just finished Clive Thompson’s book “Smarter Than You Think”. He makes many of the same points outlined in the post. Of particular interest of mine is contained in the “search” paragraph, where the topic of knowledge construction supports my strongly held belief that data, indeed, needs to reside in the mind to be put together to create knowledge…it’s about making connections.

  4. Phil LePore says:

    You ask whether I’m smarter or less smart thanks to my technology.

    I doubt my IQ gone up or that I do better at Jeopardy.

    But I’m happier at being able to access more information easier than ever before.

    It’s now to the point where I feel naked without my smart phone and/or laptop.

    So tech for me is about having a tool that provides access to the information I need. That, that tool can now fit in my pocket is a dream come true.

    As with all these advances there’s a downside, of course.

    With access being a door that swings both ways, I have never felt more like a sitting duck than I do now!

    Nor as dumb about the ever evolving technology needed for protecting oneself!

    So there you go.

    Simultaneously smarter and less smart!

  5. Marian Casey says:

    Great article. You nicely show that using technology impacts skills and intelligence in both positive and negative ways. Yet this is expected as humans adapt to and integrate technology into their personal and professional lives.
    Higher education institutions and employers are now putting importance on a person’s soft skills as well as intelligence levels. A person’s learning agility or ability to adapt quickly to new situations is becoming a skill in demand.
    We are evolving as humans do to adapt. It’s scary but also so exciting.

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