EDCI – 335 Blog Post #6
Attention is a scarce commodity in schools these days. Some students can muster a few minutes of it, while others can barely pay enough attention to determine what class they are sitting in. In the past 17 years, I have seen a definite shift in the ability of kids to pay attention. I have anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes to get my point across at the beginning of class and that is about it.
Even the tried and true such as showing a movie in class is lost on most kids these days. You can pretty much forget about asking kids to identify a plot line, a theme or moral imperative within even the best that hollywood has to offer. Unless the movie you are showing starts off with either a gratuitous sex scene, a gunfight or aliens having gratuitous sex in the middle of a gunfight, kids just aren’t interested.
So where does this leave us teachers?
The question we are struggling with at this point is. Are teachers just not effectively utilizing digital teaching tools to engage students, or is technology simply leading the human race to ruin?
The biggest problem here is that we do not have enough longitudinal data to be able to point a finger at any one digital innovation and say “SEE!!! Satan lives within!” We also don’t have enough information on how to effectively utilize technology to engage kids and maximize learning. All we can go by is what we see before us in our classrooms and the anecdotal evidence is mounting. The digital world has changed how our children learn and interact with the world.
The thing about the digital world is that everything is designed to demand your immediate attention. Our devices and our social networks constantly beckon us and demand a response. It is like some sort of digitized Pavlovian experiment where instead of a bell, there is a notification sound or buzz in your pocket and the reward is a little message instead of a chunk of meat.
Our need for recognition and adulation from our peers via social media has become so all-consuming that we interrupt virtually anything to check our messages. The Retrevo Gadgetology Report in 2010 looked at data from 1000 social media users and discovered that some people are even willing to interrupt sex in order to check their messages. Now last I checked, sex takes ones full attention… usually. If digital technology is powerful enough to pull you away from perhaps the most enjoyable human interaction of all, teachers don’t have a hope in hell in keeping their student’s attention whilst regaling them with the finer points of Shakespeare soliloquies.
Gigi Vorgan & Gary Small wrote in their 2009 book iBrain that:
When paying partial continuous attention, people may place their brains in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions. Instead they exist in a state of constant crisis-on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment. Once people get use to this state, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth and it becomes irresistible.
How we go about competing with this state of perpetual attention seeking in a classroom is a bit of a mystery at the moment. If Vorgan and Small are correct, the very things we are trying to get kids to do in the classroom are effectively hamstrung by this constant need for digital affirmation. Of course the simplistic solution is just banning the device from the classroom but that doesn’t work because your students spend the entire class jonesing for their digital fix.
The simple thinkers in the crowd (usually politicians) then say… “Well then if they are glued to the device all the time then start delivering curriculum through it!” but the kids are not interested in the device so much as the kind of message it delivers. How do you go about breaking curriculum into snippets of information that “feeds their egos and sense of self-worth” so kids will internalize it? Personally I don’t think we need to butcher our curriculum to suit the digitally dependant.
As much as I love technology, I don’t think the solution can be found with more technology. I work with kids everyday who have managed to find a balance between digital and non digital learning environments. The can read, think, reflect and do all those things we have expected of kids in days gone by and then they can turn around and use technology to demonstrate their learning with some amazing results. As much as I would like to claim these kids have found this balance by way of a teacher such as myself, more often than not it is because of their parents digital use policy at home.
To solve our problems in the classroom involving digital technology, we need kids to have home environments where access to digital devices is not unlimited or unmonitored. A home where phones are not welcome at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table and the digital device is never used as a pacifier. Books should be paper and plentiful and never should attending to your cellphone be more important that attending to your child.
Paying attention to something isn’t something kids only do at school. In fact it starts long before they ever set foot in our classroom. As with everything, a good foundation begins at home.