Two topics which have always been useful to media outlets to draw attention and spur consumption are teenagers and technology: they are right up there with communism and germs.   Since at least the fifties Americans have worried about teenagers and what they are up to in their spare time, and why they are not “doing school” in the way we adults wish they would; since at least the early 19th century luddites and others have feared what technology is bringing us.

Put teens and tech together and you can cause quite an alarmist splash.

The New York Times last Sunday did exactly this: put teens and new technology together on the top, center, of the front page in a lengthy, 4000 word, scary article called Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, asking many frightening questions:

  • What are teens doing with their free time?
  • Why aren’t they studying what we tell them to study in the ways we tell them to do so?
  • What is all this new technology doing in schools anyway?

Let’s acknowledge there are certainly valid concerns.    Like the principal at Woodside, I see seeking moderation in all things (as the Greeks advocated) as my guiding philosophy: of course we want teens to have balance.  Of course Ramon, the ninth grade boy at Woodside, would be healthier if he were not playing video games 50 hours a week, but let’s not mistake this: if school doesn’t engage him, he will find something else which does: video games, skateboarding, or any number of other activities (many of them far more destructive than video games).

It is appalling that schools are canceling recess so students take more time to fill in the blanks of their workbooks; it is appalling that schools are cutting arts, music, and athletics so as to narrow their students’ focus to what can be tested, at the expense of balance in their lives and intellectual development.   At my school, I am entirely proud of all the ways in which we have students learn out-of-doors (4-8 days a year), participate in interscholastic athletics (80+%), perform on stage (50+%), perform community service, and discuss real issues in advisory: all of them without any computers present.

The New York Times piece, however, doesn’t strike this reader as genuinely respecting balance: it seems its primary intent is to induce our fear of  technology’s power to distract our kids from what we think is most important for them: sitting in our classrooms and doing what we assign them for homework.

Young, developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus…Teachers at Woodside commonly blame technology for students’ struggles to concentrate, but they are divided over whether embracing computers is the right solution.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Alan Eaton, a charismatic Latin teacher. He says that technology has led to a “balkanization of their focus and duration of stamina,” and that schools make the problem worse when they adopt the technology.

In fairness, there are a number of places where the reporter seeks to acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives about these issues, and there are parents, administrators, and teachers who value and advocate for technology in learning.    Most importantly, the very student at the center of the article, the one who is most distracted from his studies, is recognized for the way in which he is using digital tools, in his case film-making ones, to engage him in meaningful, creative ways.

The tone taken about  technology’s advocates leaves a lot to be desired:  “Other parents wholly embrace computer use, even when it has no obvious educational benefit.”  (This just seems snarky to me.) The video piece opens with scary, off-kilter images about technology in schools, and emphasizes how school administrators are surrendering to teenagers’ demands rather than leading.  One article, from Harvard’s Nieman center, summarize the piece this way:

“Rex Sorgatz summed it up like so: “‘Young people suck.’ –NYT.””

Across the internet, some great responses are emerging: Don Tapscott’s at HuffPo and Megan Garber’s at Nieman, for instance, both speak with far greater knowledge and sophistication than I am able to offer here, and I urge folks to read both.

There are a few points in response I’d like to share:

About Distraction: As the article’s title makes clear, this is the largest point being made: that technology is problematically and powerfully driving our kids to distraction.

We who promote ed-tech should always make clear we are more concerned about distraction, not less, than other educators: the difference is that we talk about the problem of distraction by framing the issue more positively:

What are we doing as educators to meaningfully engage our students, to give them the autonomy, purpose, and opportunity for mastery which they crave and to which they respond with focus, energy, enthusiasm, and diligence?

The approach we take is not finger wagging about what is distracting kids, but thinking harder about and doing more to bring about the opposite: engagement.

Do we think that before technology, most students avoided distraction?  Do we think they spent school-days sitting in lecture consumed with fascination as they listen to a teacher talk about the Smoot Hawley tariff?   Have you seen Ferris Buller’s Day Off, a film made before cell phones and computers?

Students report regularly that what engages them most in learning is doing projects employing technology, far more than listening to lectures.  (HSSSE).    Clearly this is how young professionals (physicians, lawyers, engineers, academics, managers) spend their time: using computers to gather information, communicate and collaborate with others, and publish and post their answers, to  tackle meaningful problems.

Yes, of course, students can and do get distracted when their computers and smartphones are open on their desk or lap, and teachers need to respond thoughtfully to this problem.    It is fine for teachers to ask students to put them away at certain times.    William Stites has a terrific post about how schools can confront and manage the technological distraction issues.

But don’t ever forget that students have always been distracted, and let’s remember too: what better time for students to learn how to manage technological distractions than when they are under our influence, rather than waiting until we send them off to the far less supervised university settings!

About attention-spans:   The Time’s “Wired” advances further the idea that our students’ attention span is narrowing, when the very definition of attention span is left unexplored.   As Virginia Heffernan wrote last Sunday in the Times magazine:

So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of “The Sun Also Rises”; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played. The actions of these children may dismay or please adults, but anyone who has ever been bored by one practice and absorbed by another can explain the kids’ choices more persuasively than does the dominant model, which ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.

Sometimes I fear attention-span is a club we use to clobber people who don’t pay attention to what we want them to pay attention to; if they are not compliantly listening to what is interesting to us, we accuse them of lacking concentration.  Kids give enormous attention to what they care about, and I see them do so every day in class when they are challenged, when they are welcomed to collaborate, when they are allowed to be creative.

The research cited in the Times about how video games over-stimulate such that sleep patterns are disrupted does concern me: sleep is so important.   But I am not sure the answer is to prefer kids watch movies instead, and lull them into passivity.   Yes, balance is important, and yes, kids should be allowed to be bored sometimes.   But let’s not decide we  deprive  kids of these “stimulating”  video game experiences which stimulate their brains by being interactive, difficult, and complex.

About reading books: It is absolutely a great and powerful intellectual experience of growth to read full-length books, and I want this for our students.   The Times article saddens me when it suggests that the digital age is driving our students away from reading, but I am not persuaded altogether.  I assigned summer reading as a teacher in the late eighties and early nineties, and it has to be said: reading compliance then was also, often, poor.   I know I read more than I did before because I am inspired to do so by online social networks, and I see my own sons, and my students, still reading.    Let’s continue to ask students to read, and let’s help them do so by helping them find inspirational, meaningful reading.

About texting:  Many teenagers, we have known for a long time have a fierce craving for social connections, and they have always  used what is at their disposal to do so.  Some skip school because they hate to miss out on social networks happening outside of school, some come to school only to see their friends, and some text constantly.   None of these things are ideal or healthy for kids, but technology is not to blame; I think we can realize that some kids who used to go out at night to socialize with their friends can now do so from their home computer/smartphone while still multi-tasking by doing their homework.    Is it my preference that students text during homework? No.    But is texting sometimes preferable to alternatives (driving cars around town seeking out friends in parks and at 7-11, for instance)?  Yes.     Should we work as parents and educators to promote self-discpline, self-regulation, and accountability for results for our teen students: Yes, just as much as we always should.   But we should also be glad they have tools to stay connected in reasonably healthy ways, and that the issue is healthy balance, not the tool.

Don Tapscott writes:

there is no actual evidence to support the view that this generation is distracted, performing poorly or otherwise less capable than previous generations. In fact the evidence suggests that on the whole, this is the smartest generation ever. IQ is up year over year for many years, university entrance exam scores are at an all time high and it has never been tougher to get into the best universities. Furthermore, volunteering amongst high school and university students is at an all time high and in the US the percentage of kids that are clean in high school — i.e. they don’t do drugs or alcohol — is up year over year for 15 years. This is a generation about which we can be enormously hopeful.

The world is changing, faster and faster, and we do need to be thoughtful and intentional about how technology is used by our students, and we do need to strive for healthy balance.  I appreciate that the Times Wired piece asks this of parents and educators.   But I don’t think we need to heighten fears and anxieties: let’s embrace the opportunity technology provides our educational programs to return to Aristotle’s call that we learn by doing, that our schools are centers of technologically empowered active investigation, collaboration, and creation, the type of learning that will be challenge, engage, and prepare our teens.