Twitter, text, talk, but no time to think

Everybody’s connected all the time, “sharing” every 140-character observation, updating each other on their latest cup of coffee, tweeting and texting. But there’s less time to think, writes Diana Senechal in her new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

An English teacher quotes Senechal’s critique of the stress on group work and collaboration.

“Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.

“One oft-touted practice in elementary school is the ‘turn and talk’ activity, where a teacher pauses in a story she is reading aloud, asks a question, and has the students talk to their partners about it. When they are done, they join hands and raise them in the air. Instead of losing themselves in the story, they must immediately contend with the reactions of their peers. Many districts require small-group activities, throughout the grades, because such activities presumably allow all student to talk in a given lesson. Those who set and enforce such policies do not consider the drawbacks of so much talk. Talk needs a counterbalance of thought; without thought, it turns into chatter.”

I memorized a sonnet by Wordsworth in the 10th grade. Forty-odd years later, it stills comes to mind: “The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . . “

Compulsive tweeting and checking of e-mail is harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes, according to a new study.

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  1. Brian Gaerity says:

    Oh, those darn kids, with all their tweets and email. What’s this world coming to?

    Seriously: a BLOGGER is criticizing the use of email and Twitter? Guess you should delete those “Share” buttons above or else you’ll be accused of enabling the addicts.

    What’s wrong with collaboration? That’s 75% of what I did in the corporate world. Even research scientists do most of their work in teams. Collaboration is the reason the U.S. military is so successful. It also leads to some terrific modern dance and classical music. If the critique is about teaching “good” vs. “bad” collaboration, fine. But what I’m hearing is “too much emphasis on teamwork, and not enough on rote learning.” More assertion than data there.

    Be truthful: did you really memorize that sonnet IN CLASS? Surely you did some of that work at home (perhaps with a friend to prompt you when you faltered)? Isn’t a classroom full of kids and a dynamic teacher INHERENTLY collaborative?

    My kids (both in public school) are far more adept at teamwork that many of the adults I used to work with. I can’t begin to quantify the amount of lost productivity caused by “lone-wolves,” “saboteurs” and other non-team players who believed in doing their “own” work.

    And, as an ex-smoker, I’ll take a thousand tweets and emails a day over a pack a day, any day.

    • Today I told my First Sergeant that collaboration is the reason the U.S. military is so successful, and that perhaps he should pay more attention to my ideas. He put me in the front leaning rest position and made me do push ups while he gave me a lecture on the differences between collaboration and teamwork, and between collaboration and coordination. Then he threw me out of his office. I still don’t understand what went wrong…

  2. Collaboration is indeed vastly overrated. It is difficult, if not impossible, to engage in deep thought or the much-ballyhooed “critical thinking” when all the talk and chatter is held up as the end-all and be-all. These activities strikes me as more akin to groupthink, and a blow to individuality. Maintaining a contrary opinion in such an atmosphere isn’t easy, especially when there is peer pressure to conform to a consensus (for a real-life example, consider the global warming nonsense).

    Believe it or not, there are those of us who prefer to be our own person, and actually are more productive on our own rather than being dragged from one meeting or group activity to another.

    For those students who are considering attending college, schools should cultivate the life of the mind, not cater to teenagers’ freneticness.

  3. What a reaction!

    As it happens, I distinguish among various kinds of group work and collaboration.

  4. For clarification: my comment was a response to Brian Gaerity’s.

    • Brian Gaerity says:

      My reaction is commensurate to the assertion. You say:

      “Our public schools, which should encourage students to see beyond the claims of the movement, have instead caved in to the immediate demands of the larger culture and economy. Convinced that the outside world calls for collaboration, school leaders and policymakers expect teachers to incorporate group work in their lessons, the more of it the better. They do not pay enough attention to the ingredients of good collaboration: independent thought, careful pondering of a topic, knowledge of the subject, and attentive listening.”

      That’s quite a sweeping statement. As evidence, you cite a single observation. That’s a straw man, and a cheap shot at public education.

      I have no argument with your components of “good collaboration.” I have seen those very elements in my children’s group projects at school. Why are you so positive they don’t exist in many/most public schools?

      My kids spend a great deal of time with their own thoughts. I’m often impressed at how deeply they have contemplated a topic they’re studying in class. And how their classmates or teacher have challenged their assumptions or conclusions, as part of a group project or class discussion.

      Solitude and “time to think” are important. But so is collaboration, especially in this increasingly inter-connected world.

  5. “turn and talk”

    For the sophisticated older kids they call it “think, pair, share!” I dread it every time it is unleashed on the teachers at a faculty meeting.

  6. I like group work about as much as I like faculty meetings. I wonder if Augustine, Aquinas and Montaigne did group work in high school? How would a Mozart violin concerto sound if it were composed collaboratively? Senechal makes a valid point. Too many distractions. Too much talk. Too much sound and fury signifying nothing. Personally I think the perfect venue for learning is a monastery. The real purpose of group work is to get unengaged students engaged, but it rarely works.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      You have to work with what you have, though. Let’s be realistic. When is a student ever actually alone in a school? We don’t want them unsupervised. We put them in closed rooms with 30 of their peers, then herd them down hallways, and make them pee in a stall with others around them. My students might be 18 and old enough to join the military, but I can’t leave them alone to pee myself. The closest I can get to solitude for them is to ask them to write. But they’re still writing while surrounded by other teenagers — and writing at home is done in constant contact via FB or texting. Reading is assigned as homework, but it is darn hard to get them to do it. They don’t like being alone with those books and their heads — it’s “boring.”
      (And no, I’m not talking about all your wonderful gifted/ autistic children who devour books by the dozens — just regular kids.)

      (And please, God, it is time to wash those hoodies, people — can I even ask parents to do that? Forget teaching them anything, just wrestle that reeking thing off them and into a washing machine… and while you are at it tell them to quit grabbing each others’ nipples — when did THAT become the in thing for boys to do to each other?)

  7. CaliforniaTeacher says:

    Classrooms need a well-paced variety of activities. Kids can’t be required to sit still for lengthy periods of time; most of them get fidgety, then fuss. Conversely, too much group work waters down the content. A good teacher will offer different ways for students to demonstrate content knowledge.

    And for all you introverts and self-motivated types, don’t let your personal experiences determine what you think is applicable to all students. Not everyone thrives on solitude, just as not all want to talk.

    • However, the current pedagogy is tilted sharply away from the quiet ones and the ones with social difficulties. It’s not enough to do the homework correctly and do well on tests and quizzes; too much weight is given to asking/answering questions and groupwork. Worse yet, kids are graded on how willing they are to share their feelings, which I feel is far too intrusive and no one else’s business.

    • Yes, and when there’s too much group work, this constrains what can be taught. Group work is fruitful when there’s an actual reason for it, when there’s some component of individual work, and when it serves the lesson and not vice versa.

      Solitude is not just physical removal from others. It is also independence of mind: that which separates us from others at any given time. In Pride and Prejudice, you can sense Elizabeth’s solitude whether she is among others or not.

      But solitude can be crowded out when there’s little room for extended thought and little of substance to think about.

      Near the end of his treatise De vita solitaria, Petrarch posits three kinds of solitude: that of place, that of time (such as the night), and that of the mind. In my book, I treat solitude of the mind as central.

  8. CaliforniaTeacher says:

    Diana, I’m curious as to how you would translate your ideas into lesson design and practice. I mean this with genuine interest. Would you care to elaborate?

  9. CaliforniaTeacher,

    It’s as simple (and as difficult) as spending time with the subject or topic, pondering it, and finding ways to bring it to the students. Sometimes a lecture (or short lecture) will be the best way to convey the topic at hand; sometimes a discussion, sometimes a series of problems, sometimes a group activity will be most appropriate.

    This is difficult to do well, and it goes against models that prescribe a particular lesson format or way of teaching.

    So, for instance, a middle-school unit on the Constitution might include short lectures about the constitution’s history, its structure, its contents, and some of the finer points. There would also be class discussions of the Preamble (which the students would memorize), the principle and specifics of checks and balances, and the Bill of Rights. Students could give individual or group presentations on specific amendments; those not presenting on a given amendment could prepare questions about it. At the end of the unit, the class might hold a mock session of Congress, where they wrote bills for homework, discussed and revised them within their subcommittees (small groups), presented them to the full House or Senate, debated them, and finally voted on them. Or they might debate the constitutionality of a particular law.

    The point is that the lessons suit the subject and students (and, to a degree, the teacher, as different teachers will have a gift for certain kinds of lessons). Students are not put in groups day after day to fill out charts or show signs of “accountable talk.” Nor are they forced to fill out worksheets or just sit still and listen the whole time.

    And some courses and levels may be less varied in format. A literature course may consist mainly of whole-class discussion, with some lectures and some presentations. There is nothing wrong with keeping things simple, but the simplicity should serve the subject.

    Where does solitude come in? The teacher has to spend time with the subject, turning it this way and that, testing out various ideas in the mind, then forming lesson plans that make a bridge between these ideas and the students. The students can tell when a teacher has put this kind of thought into the subject and the lesson. It comes across in the choice of words, in the responses to students’ comments and questions. So in this kind of a lesson, there’s a subtle sort of solitude even when a lively discussion is taking place.

    • CaliforniaTeacher says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write your response, Diana. You’ve given me some insight.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        I have about 70 binders full of varied lesson (many differentiated) plans in English. I think I’m sitting on a gold mine if this thing takes off! I’ll even throw in my 20-minute lectures on a DVD.

  10. Ponderosa says:

    California Teacher,

    I teach history to seventh graders in a public middle school. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, kids this age CAN sit still and listen for 40 minutes at a time. Mine do it routinely. And many of them –not all –like it. Bad lectures are stultifying; good lectures are captivating. And much more efficient and imparting knowledge than group work.

    • I’m with you on the positive qualities of the lecture; I just wish the ed world was interested in the concept of efficiency. Being able to sit still and listen (actively) is a teachable skill; most effectively imparted from preschool years onward. All of my ES teachers demanded it, but that was in the era when self-control was an absolute virtue.