Smartphones don’t make us dumb, but …

Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in the New York Times. Digital devices don’t even destroy our attention spans. “We can focus,” he writes. But we may not want to.”

In a 2012 Pew survey, nearly 90 percent of teachers said their students can’t pay attention the way they could a few years ago.

It may be that digital devices have not left us unable to pay attention, but have made us unwilling to do so.

The digital world carries the promise of amusement that is constant, immediate and limitless. If a YouTube video isn’t funny in the first 10 seconds, why watch when I can instantly seek something better on BuzzFeed or Spotify? The Internet hasn’t shortened my attention span, but it has fixed a persistent thought in the back of my mind: Isn’t there’s something better to do than what I’m doing?

. . . People’s performance on basic laboratory tests of attention gets worse if a cellphone is merely visible nearby. In another experiment, people using a driving simulator were more likely to hit a pedestrian when their cellphone rang, even if they had planned in advance not to answer it.

Digital devices encourage “near constant outwardly directed thought” at the expense of time for reflection, Willingham concludes. “A flat cap on time with devices — the restriction we first think of for ourselves and our kids — might help.”

Multi-tasking is a myth, writes Leah Levy on Edudemic. Beware of information overload, writes Daniel J. Levitin in the Guardian.

Wasting time online — for credit

Wasting Time on the Internet is a new creative writing class at Penn this spring. Poet Kenneth Goldsmith hopes “clicking, SMSing, status-updating, and random surfing” can be “used as raw material for creating compelling and emotional works of literature.”
Kenneth Goldsmith

“Students will be required to stare at the screen for three hours, only interacting through chat rooms, bots, social media and listservs,” the course descriptions states. “Distraction, multi-tasking, and aimless drifting is mandatory.”

They’ll also read “critical texts” about boredom, “affect theory, ASMR, situationism and everyday life,” the course description states.

Distraction can unleash creativity, Goldstein tells Jason Koebler on Motherboard.

He’s tired of reading New York Times articles “that make us feel bad about spending so much time on the internet, about dividing our attention so many times,” he told Koebler. “I think it’s complete bullshit that the internet is making us dumber. I think the internet is making us smarter.”

“Electronic distraction and multitasking is the new surrealism,” Goldstein argues. “Surrealists wanted to get unconscious, well, we’re doing that now all the time.”

The dress code rebellion

My sister was sent home from high school for wearing culottes. They were considered too close to shorts, which were banned. Girls had to wear a dress or skirt that hit no higher than mid-knee. Flip-flops weren’t banned because it never occurred to anyone to wear them to school. These were the rebellious ’60s. All our energy went into our hair.

Dress code rebellions are springing up across the U.S. and Canada, reports the Huffington Post.

Two dozen Georgia middle school students were suspended on charges of “terroristic threats” a Facebook post urged classmates to violate the dress code on the last week of school.

 By Thursday, the post escalated to, “Everything they say we can’t wear, wear,” and, “We need the hallways packed and out of control” with everyone participating.

The end of the post threatens whoever might snitch.

Every student who shared or commented was suspended.

This is just one of many outbreaks, reports the Huffington Post. Girls are rejecting the idea that their clothing — or lack thereof — might distract boys.

In March, over 500 students at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Illinois, signed a petition opposing what they’d been told was a full ban on leggings and yoga pants.

Seventh grader Sophie Hasty explained to local news that teachers said the clothing was distracting for other students — rather, the boys. “We just want to be comfortable!” Hasty wrote to the Evanston Review.

Students at Wauwatosa West High School in Wisconsin want to wear short shorts. “They are just legs,”  sophomore Elizabeth Kniffin told the local TV news. “Is that really too distracting? I understand that girls shouldn’t be coming to school with their butts or chests hanging out, but there has to be a happy medium.”

Are bare walls best for learning?

Lavishly decorated classroom walls may lead to less learning, warn Carnegie Mellon researchers. Kids are easily distracted.

Don’t tear down all the posters, responds Dan Willingham. Students may get used to decorated walls and be less distracted.

In the study, students in a classroom-like lab listened to six read-alouds on science topics (e.g., volcanoes, the solar system) in groups. Afterwards, children answered six questions about the lesson. The walls were either  bare or very decorated.

“Kids spent a greater percentage of time looking away from the teacher in the decorated classroom (38 percent of the time vs. 28 percent of the time). And kids in the decorated classroom scored lower on the assessment (42 percent vs. 55 percent).”

Even if students don’t become habituated to classroom decorations, there could be a high cost to bare walls, writes Willingham. Teachers decorate to create in inviting social environment. It may be more difficult to build a sense of classroom community in a sterile environment.

Creating (and equipping) a bright, cheerful, welcoming elementary classroom isn’t easy, writes a teacher. “Teachers spend many hours finding ideas for organizing and decorating classrooms.”

Teacher torture devices

Entrepreneur Cheong Choon Ng, who created Rainbow Loom, shows innovation still thrives in the U.S., writes New York Times columnist Bill Keller.

Rubber band bracelets, are teacher torture devices, writes Mrs. Lipstick on Organized Chaos.

Tiny rubber bands are knitted together to form a bracelet. When it’s pulled apart — which isn’t difficult — “a child suddenly has what feels like hundreds of little bands all over his desk.”

Of course this only happens at the exact moment you are trying to transition the class and the student suddenly finds himself in a panic because he is worried he will lose one precious tiny rubber band. Or worse, the student becomes worried that a friend will steal the bands, which of course involves lots of yelling and “hey, that’s mine! Nobody touch it!” Both scenarios ultimately ends with a total class disruption and involve a very frustrated teacher.

“The amount of drama behind these bands could drive a daytime soap opera,” concludes Mrs. Lipstick.

Open classrooms are noisy, distracting

Open-plan offices — cubicle farms — make it hard to concentrate, say workers in a new survey. There’s no place to have a private conversation. It’s noisy. Open classrooms are the norm in K-12 schools, writes Anya Kamenetz in Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.

A new study (sponsored by an office-furniture company, Steelcase, so take it with a grain of salt) compared students in classrooms designed for “active learning,” including dynamic grouping of seats in small and large groups, multisensory engagement at different stations around the room, as well as the use of screens and other technology, to the more traditional “rows of seats” classrooms that are all but disappearing now. “90.32% of students perceived an increase in their engagement in the class with layouts designed for active learning, 80.65% said the new layout increased their ability to achieve a higher grade, and 70.04% their motivation to attend class.”

Even these layouts don’t give students a chance to “be alone with a teacher or with their thoughts,”  Kamenetz writes. “So much classroom management effort is really spent on managing the noise-pollution issue, while sound privacy matters when a teacher needs to give a student critical feedback or just time to reflect on a question.”

80% of college students text in class

Eighty percent of college students text in class, according to a survey by Barney McCoy, a University of Nebraska professor.

More than 60 percent say they’re distracted by using digital devices; even more say other people’s use is distracting.


Attention must be paid

Instead of catering to short attention spans, schools should teach students to pay attention, writes Benjamin Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor, in Slate.

Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience.

Maintaining attention is a skill that can be learned, he argues. Students need to exercise their “attention muscle” to strengthen it.

Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

Young people raised on brief, simplified info-bits won’t realize what they’re missing, Schwartz believes. “Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.”

“In the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short,” writes Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.

 Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”

Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions.

Kamenetz sees the “pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style” as a sign of a new power dynamic.  “Many people have something to say.” In the traditional classroom, “traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.” On the Internet, no one has to listen to anyone else.

Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?”

Patience is the missing 21st-century skill

The 21st century skill students lack is patience, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

We oldsters grew up with “fewer sources of distraction and entertainment,” he writes. The TV had four channels. “Digital natives” can avoid even mild boredom, most of the time. They never learn that patience brings rewards.

Jennifer Roberts, a Harvard art and architecture professor, tells students to select a painting in a Boston museum, study it for three hours and write a paper on it.
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The duration is “meant to seem excessive,” Roberts says. She wants students to think they’ve seen all there is to see, keep looking and see more.

As part of a book she was writing on 18th century American painter John Singleton Copley, she studied at length the painting A Boy With a Flying Squirrel.

Despite her experience, it took time before “she noticed that the shape of the white ruff on the squirrel matches the shape of the boy’s ear, and is echoed again in the fold of the curtain over his left shoulder.”

Students “need to feel the pleasure of discovering that something you thought you had figured out actually has layers that you had not appreciated,” Willingham writes.

Boring is bad, responds Tim Holt. He accuses Willingham of shouting, Get off my lawn, you damn kids.

Breaking the tablets

Last week, my tenth-grade students read the prologue of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; to supplement this, I had them listen to part of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 and read Exodus 32 (about the breaking of the tablets). The former has lyrics, sung by a contralto, that are only a slight rearrangement of “Zarathustra’s Roundelay”; the latter is important because Zarathustra speaks of seeking out tablet-breakers as companions. On my own, I have been thinking about how teachers are (or can be) breakers of tablets. I am making this analogy cautiously, so take it with all the salt you need.

In Exodus, Moses comes down to the mount to see that the people have made a gold calf idol (well, they brought Aaron the gold, and he made the idol for them). Moses arrives, sees the idol, and breaks the tablets in anger, the tablets that he had received from God. (Later, in Exodus 34, God gives him the words for the new tablets.) Moses then asks Aaron, how did this occur? And Aaron replies, “thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (King James version).

Now, I would suggest that one aspect of being a student (whether you’re attentive in class or not) is learning to set idols aside. At times a teacher has to break the tablets and create new ones.

On an immediate level, this might take the form of a teacher changing the lesson plan when it’s clear that the students don’t understand or aren’t paying attention. But it’s possible to see this as a single and permanent event.

A teacher comes with a sense of the subject (and often a love for the subject). She has something she wants the students to see, grasp, and make their own. She knows they won’t get it right away, and she wants them to persevere until they get it.

The students are not always open to this. Either they want nothing to do with it, or they make partial attempts toward limited goals (such as a good grade). Some learn to fake their way through; some distract themselves during class and at home. Sometimes this reaches a pitch where those who don’t take class seriously dominate the lesson. They have essentially erected their idol.

The teacher then realizes that something has to crack. Breaking the tablets here would mean: recognizing that this is going in the wrong direction, stopping right there, and starting over with something more basic, so that the students can build up to the subject. It doesn’t mean making the subject “relevant” or eliminating its challenges and strangeness; it does mean rewriting the tablets so that they actually reach the students. (This may relate to the distinction Michael Lopez made in his excellent recent post.)

But isn’t it wrong for a teacher to get angry at the students? It depends on the kind of anger. There is a warm kind that wakes the students up, helps them see the situation, and points toward the good. Sometimes a teacher must say, “this has gotten out of hand.” Even in college and graduate school, professors do this; the students may be distracted not with chatter, but with this or that intellectual fad or bad habit. I remember a professor raging over the ubiquitous misuse of the verb “subvert.” That’s almost a case in point.

I say “almost” because the individual instances don’t really do this justice. Many teachers have a turning point in their practice. It may recur, in different contexts, but they will always draw on that first experience. It’s where they realize that they aren’t reaching the students (or many of them) and that they must reach them. They break not only the lesson, but their conception of what they are doing, and start with something else.

Now, that new approach may be incomplete. (Maybe it’s inevitably so.) It’s a common error for an educator to “see the light” and then think that his or her new method is all that’s needed. It isn’t. What matters here is the gesture of breaking through to the students. In one sense, this gesture happens over and over; in another, it happens only once.

This is where the likeness breaks down. One can’t compare a teacher’s “new covenant” with the new tablets that Moses inscribes. There’s a gulf between the two, whether or not one regards Exodus as sacred text. Still, there’s something to the analogy, for all its imperfections.