Digitally driven distraction is the bogeyman of the hour.
We ed-tech advocates should make clear in every way we can that 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, focus, effort, process, practice, and accomplishment.
Do we think that before technology, most students avoided distraction? Do we think they spent school-days sitting in lecture consumed with fascination for listening to a teacher talk about the Smoot Hawley tariff? Have you seen Ferris Buller’s Day Off, a film made before cell phones and laptops?
Students report regularly that what engages them most in learning is doing projects employing technology, far more than listening to lectures. (this is clear in the High School Survey of Student Engagement, 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.
This isn’t just rhetoric: there are more and more schools taking exactly this approach; you can find these practices at High Tech High and New Tech Network schools, and you can find an excellent articulation of these approaches in many new books, including several from ISTE such as Suzie Boss’ Reinventing Project-Based Learning with Technology.
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 in certain times. William Stites has a terrific post about how schools can confront and manage the technological distraction issues.
But let’s not forget that students have always been distracted, and let’s recognize that our schools are the best time for students to learn how to manage technological distractions, far better than waiting until we send them off to the far less supervised university settings. The response to the anxiety of distraction is not to go backwards, is not to limit technology, but to learn to use it effectively to reduce distraction by improving engagement.
Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital, writes in HuffPo:
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. 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: let’s lead our schools to become centers of technologically empowered active investigation, collaboration, and creation, the type of learning that will be engage, challenge, engage, and prepare our teens for their futures.
[a longer version of this post was published yesterday at www.21k12blog.net]