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Wired for distraction

November 24, 2010

This weekend, the NYT published this great 4000 word article, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” along with some excellent multimedia content, including fantastic audio interviews with the students in the article, and an excellent video overview (too bad they won’t let you embed it in a wordpress blog). Overall, I think the article paints a reasonably balanced picture of the effect technology is having to students, and the many ways in which teachers are trying to use technology in their classes to increase student engagement. (Side note: Woodside high is one of the “bad” schools that was featured in Waiting for Superman—it was the school where the affluent girl thought she’d be lost in the mix, and instead opted to attend a charter school that seems to focus much more heavily on kids mastering the basics. After reading what Woodside’s principal has to say, and all the offerings of the school, I’d personally say I’d be much more comfortable with my kids at Woodside, than that charter school—yet another reason why WfS was a terrible movie about education—I wonder if Davis Guggenheim even bothered to talk to anyone at Woodside when he was gathering his shots of the campus).

When I saw this I thought this would be the perfect article for my continuing metacognition curriculum.  And so I asked kids to read it and answer the following questions on webassign.

  1. Describe one or two moments in the article “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction” you identified with.
  2. Do you ever feel distracted by technology while trying to learn or complete homework? Explain
  3. What strategies do you use to try to reduce/control/limit this distraction?
  4. Do you feel you have time in your day for downtime? The article seems to define downtime as time away from technology and other stimulation which you can use to rest, ponder, and synthesize? Explain
  5. Do you feel you have time in your day for downtime? The article seems to define downtime as time away from technology and other stimulation which you can use to rest, ponder, and synthesize? Explain

The answers were truly fascinating, and I’ll paste them below if you’re interested. Overall, they tell me that we’re failing badly as teachers and parents at helping students to navigate these waters.

I began our discussion by playing Vishal’s interview, and asking the kids what they thought of him. The discussion was very interesting, because at first, a number of students piled on about his bad grades (a 2.4 GPA is unimaginable to my students), but very quickly other students started to push back and say that he had developed a deep interest and was using technology to learn and develop his passion for filmmaking. In the end, we all agreed that Vishal would probably be fine, but we did linger in discussing instant gratification.

I asked the students if they felt they were sort of addicted to instant gratification as well, and they said they were. We talked about how video games are actually designed to give you small unexpected rewards that draw you into the game and keep you playing. I asked them why instant gratification was a bad thing—I mean google isn’t going out of business anytime soon, and if they can answer my questions for me, so be it. It took a moment, but students realized that there are some things worth doing that aren’t instantly gratifying. Many of my kids are reading A River Runs Through It in English class, and so we riffed on this a bit, with me as the devil’s advocate. I mean the movie was pretty dull, so why would you read the book? What’s the point? If you really read the whole book, the teacher would just assign you another and another—where is this going? Soon, kids started to say that it might lead to writing a book, and then they could all see if you want to write a book, you probably need to spend a lot of time doing some careful analysis of books, taking stories apart and seeing how they’re put together—which is a lot of what you do in English class.

So we came back to the big idea that you can’t replace books with video games, and at the same time, you can’t ban technology—the key is developing the self control habits and skills to help you draw all the benefits from technology while minimizing the harms. More and more, I think these are skills we as a faculty need to teach, and I’m going to try to find some ways to add this to my metacognition curriculum. One thing I did recently that seemed to help for a day was give every student a small sign with the word “FOCUS” on it. I told them they could keep it or throw it away, but I’d read recently that sometimes reading a small nudge to focus actually increases our ability to do so. A week later, I see a few kids who still have these signs and put them on the table at the start of class.

Here are a sample of responses from my kids:

  1. Describe one or two moments in the article “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction” you identified with.
  2. I identified with the access of facebook. A lot of the time I am working very productively, and once I finish a sentence I go of facebook. Sometimes this is only for 20 seconds, but often when I get back to work my level of concentration is not as good as before. This is something that Vishal did, and his grades suffered. While my grades have not suffered because of this, I am worried if I keepWell overall the idea that he is more interested in something that is not being taught in the classroom seems pertinent to me. A lot of my interests have there place in the classroom, but also need to be explored outside of it to really have any large grasp on them. Learning tennis in P.E. for half an hour a day for a few weeks doesn’t make you good at it, and nor does reading a few books really show you much literature in English. In this way I feel that the article was somewhat wrong, that media or slacking from your assigned work is not always so bad; it helped Vishal find what he loved. Although, this article does have some very good points as I often get distracted by homework by facebook, texting, or some other means of entertainment. One last point is that the mind really does need down time; I was reading 1984 before tennis today and as I played or right before I began playing the book was mauling over in my mind, as other books often do.
    this up they will.

    I indentify with wanting instant gratification instead of having to read a whole assignment, and seeing that one little facebook notification pop up and go on Facebook for 20 minutes.

    I could completely understand the feeling of trying to get homework done while trying to have a text conversation with someone else. Even though the conversation may even start off with a question about homework, it often grows to something that can be quite distracting to my work. At one end I don’t want to be rude and not respond to my friend, but on the other hand I want to focus and get my homework done.

    i identify with the fact that i listen to music or go on facebook throuout the time i do my homework.
    I also identify with the thing about how parents monitor computer use. I am usually on the computer writing a paper or doing a webassign (not on facebook i swear!!!) at about 9 oclock. my parents then come in and snatch my computer mid sentence, and i feel like this is not appropriate moniitoring of my computer.

  3. Do you ever feel distracted by technology while trying to learn or complete homework? Explain
  4. All the time! I have tabs at the top of my screen that take me to YouTube, Yahoo!, Hulu, exc. and it is very tempting even now to click and go to those sites.

    I will sometimes get distracted on the Internet because I have so much homework, and school things that require getting on the Internet, that it is very easy for me to click on Facebook, or YouTube. I also text sometimes during my homework, not all the times, but sometimes, but that never gets out of control, but usually my phone is off, and I cam restrain myself from getting on facebook, or other websites.

    I feel distracted by technology all the time while trying to do homework. When i get on my computer, i get distracted by facebook. when i am doing homework and my phone buzzes, i get distracted.

  5. What strategies do you use to try to reduce/control/limit this distraction?
  6. I set a goal, that i will write a page of my paper before I can get on facebook. then, i will write another page and check facebook again.

    ummmmm…..i kinda just force myself to work for a while and then give myself about 20 min to surf the web.

    Leave the computer outside my room when I am not using it, and only try to use it when it needs to be used.

    Well, I recently deactivated my facebook. I felt that it was a waste of time and I didn’t need it. I will turn my phone off as well, but I actually just dropped my phone in the toliet, so I will be without a phone for a while, and that will no longer be a distraction.

  7. Do you feel you have time in your day for downtime? The article seems to define downtime as time away from technology and other stimulation which you can use to rest, ponder, and synthesize? Explain
  8. No, I never have downtime. Ever. My time to rest and ponder is sleeping time

    I feel that tennis is a way to rest, ponder, and synthesize as that is a place where a verity of different ideas can congregate in my head at one point and come to some conclusion while consciously doing something productive. Also, I feel reading anything gives me time to rest, ponder, and synthesize as then many moments throughout the day, whether conscious or sub-conscious, I think about the story, the plot, the ideas, etc.

    One thing that I’ve begun to realize is that it takes more and more for me to be entertained. I used to be able to just sit down and watch a show I recorded, but now I’ve found myself needing some other form of entertainment. I would play on my ipad while a watched it, or find myself checking my email while watching something. It worries me a little bit that it’s becoming harder and harder for me to focus on one thing at a time. It isn’t really a problem with doing schoolwork, but I think if I keep getting worse with things outside of school, that it could start affecting my schoolwork. It’s not a big problem now, but I feel like America’s attention span is shrinking and it’s kind of scary to think about the affects it could have.

    I don’t really have any downtime. I always do when I am at the beach for example, but not when I am home, especially on a school day. Instead I spend my time studying, working and having conversations. The conversations may be through text, face to face, or a phone call.

    I feel like I don’t really have time during the daytime for any downtime at all( with or without technology) I am always either doing school work or other activities such as basketball or soccer.

    I feel like if facebook weren’t invented, I would have much better grades. It is a huge procrastination tool. I feel like I procrastinate because all day long I am doing things that teachers and coaches want me to do that when i get home, I want some time to relax but i dont have very much time left in the day that by the time i am done relaxing and doing what i want to do, I am starting homework really late and staying up late to study.

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