Feature: Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?

They don’t read. They can’t spell. They spend all their time playing computer games and texting and hanging out with one another on Facebook. But the problem is much worse than you think, because the way your kids live now is rewiring their brains

Kids today are assailed by such a constant stream of input that they can’t even remember what they see. Viewers of TV screens crowded with crawls and graphics are significantly less able to recall the facts of news stories than viewers of simpler screens. “The larger the cognitive load, the harder it is to process information to any depth,” says Chatterjee. Our brains need time to mull over what’s presented to us, to decide what’s worth shifting from short-term memory into long-term storage. We may have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips, Chatterjee says, but “we don’t actually ingest that information in such a way that it gets deeply encoded.” And that explains why my son doesn’t know the days of the week.

Call me old-fashioned, but the fact that he doesn’t concerns me. There are certain things my kid — any kid — should know by the time he’s a high-school grad — that Wednesday follows Tuesday, and his nine-times tables, say. That Jake can use his cell phone to retrieve this information — can use it, for that matter, to learn how to refine weapons-grade plutonium — is beside the point. I’d like some basic knowledge to be inside his head.

ELLIOT WEINBAUM, a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, thinks I’m worrying unnecessarily. “Is your son’s school on a six-day calendar?” he asks, as we sit at a table in a conference room with a handful of his colleagues, munching sandwiches and chips.

I look at him in surprise. As a matter of fact, it is. Weinbaum shrugs. “He doesn’t know the days of the week because he doesn’t need to know them,” he says matter-of-factly. “What he needs to know is, is it day two or day three?”

Weinbaum and his colleagues are, when it comes to education, the deciders — the men and women who study how and what schoolchildren learn, how teachers teach, and how both can do better. And as far as they’re concerned, the kids are all right. They acknowledge that there are differences in how kids learn these days, but … well, let professor Janine Remillard explain. “Take literacy,” she says. “There’s not really less reading. Kids are just reading in smaller chunks. They’re not digging deeply into texts, but they’re reading from a lot of different sources.”

Besides, these educators say, we don’t have solid data to tell us what kids really did know 30 or 40 years ago, not to mention that the American education system is struggling to decide exactly what should be taught now, given the ever-increasing possibilities. The Penn profs see the world changing, not our kids.

So I challenge them: What is Jake learning when he spends six hours a day on his computer, playing World of Warcraft? Everyone turns to Yasmin Kafai, who, it turns out, has devoted extensive research to computer games. “Over so many hours,” she says, “he’s learned how to master an incredibly complex system. These multi-person games that involve intra-functional teams — ‘guilds,’ they call them — organize their entrants the way some workplaces do. These are skills that corporate employers are very interested in.” And, she says, he’s learning perseverance: “Kids invest hundreds of hours in gameplay.”