(Warning... long bit of thinking 'out loud'...)
Long ago I sat in an undergraduate lecture hall. The course was architectural engineering - steel structures. I sat there reading the New York Daily News. The comics pages or the sports boxes. Usually I held the newspaper up, blocking my view of the professor and his view of me.
"You drive him crazy," a friend told me. "Every day he calls on you and asks you some absurd question to see if he can catch you, and every time you give him the right answer, and you don't even really look at him. He just can't handle it."
Today I sit in a room with multiple computers, one with multiple screens, and 16 tabs open in Firefox (still Firefox 2, see below). Two are email links. No, three. The television is on. The window is open. Twhirl is feeding Twitter updates to me.
I have five things I am writing. All are open in Word or in Google Docs. I've conversed with a student. Had long email conversations with three different people at my university, written about 6,000 words today. Set up a computer. Learned about the Little Ice Age on The History Channel. I've discussed architecture with Rufus and assessment with Dance. Argued the Irish EU vote with friends - no, I guess it was more of an attempted explanation. Watched Germany beat Portugal.
Am I the poster child for multi-tasking or the poster child for tech-enhanced ADHD?
And therein lies the question.
A collection of things came together for me in the past week or so, about attention, about distraction, about the web generation.
One of my favorite profs gave me a great article by Dr. Noah Sobe on "The Subject of Attention.""It is important to note that Montessori understood the child’s "intense attention" as purposeful and not as an expression of involuntary, distracted perception. Her realization that "fixedness" was possible did not, for Montessori, disprove the notion that the child’s attention might also shift rapidly and distractedly. Instead, this stable attention, when placed alongside an observed instability of attention, suggested both a surface and techniques for shaping the individual."
Sobe looks at what he calls the "pedagogy of attention." And he looks at the markers we usually use for determining a student's attentiveness, and wonders about that.
Then Coffee-on-the-Keyboard (who is my kid) put up a great post on resource discovery. And discussed the way information comes to him and the way he seeks information. One of the things I paid attention to today was his follow-up on Twitter.
And I've been relistening to Jack Kerouac's On The Road, and heard a part where he describes what might be the beginning of the phenomenon of "tech distraction" in 1949 or 1950. Dean Moriarty tracking three baseball games at once, one on television, two on the radio.
Grad Student Madness brought me to an Atlantic article wondering if Google was destroying our brains. "I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
The New York Times (relentlessly anti-technology as they are) published a piece on Silicon Valley companies struggling with the distraction of email. Yes, that was classic weak journalism. Of course. It pretends that no worker without a computer was ever distracted, and it accepts statements without links to, or quotes from, any relevant data. Still, it is in the Times, so people will believe it, and quote it. "The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work."
All right. Listen, put me in a quiet room to study or take a test and the most likely product of that will be nothing. Zero. Nil. Nada. Let me loose among my distractions and I can be the most productive guy in town.
It is not that I work despite the distractions. It is not that at all. It is that the distractions contribute to my ability to pay attention, to function, to get things done. These inputs collide and contribute to a whole. Perhaps they also allow micro attentional shifts which give my brain breathing space it does not get when, say, a teacher tries to pour a continuous stream of information into me.
In this I think of the metaphor of moving through a very dark night. You can not really see anything in the zone you are staring straight at. All that is visible there is dark. And if you turn on your flashlight you will see only exactly what it is shining on - and you will have no chance to see anything outside that beam of light. But if you relax and stop staring you steadily become aware of all the things going on around you.
Does all this make me strange? Does it make me normal? Does it require me to avail myself of special educational needs services?
I will say this. I sure know that not everyone works best this way. I have a sister whose highest comfort comes from an isolated spot with a book. I doubt she was ever truly happier or ever truly more attentive than the years she spent at university curled up in a corner of the library at Edinburgh reading 17th Century novels and early church history with the dark Scottish day outside. I have friends who range all over the scale between my sister and I.
What I know from this is that "the classroom," as we know it, can not work. The perfect environment for study and productivity for one group of students will be poisonous to others.
For the past 150-200 years or so we have, as a society, come to believe in a certain paradigm of attention and productivity. Attention means focusing on a single task at a time. Productivity means doing one thing at a time. This made perfect sense in the mills of Dickensian Britain or the factories of Horatio Alger's America. And it made perfect sense when the function of schools was to train pupils, through repetition, to work in those mills and factories.
Before the rise of Protestantism was joined to nascent Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, these concepts did not exist, because the world did not need people who would repeat the same exact task all day long (long boat oarsmen being the exception). In those first half million years of human history multi-tasking was a given, as was divided attention. You needed to be both hunt and avoid predators. In order to hunt successfully you needed to pay attention to hundreds of things. Any subsistence farmer does the same. As does anyone building their own house. As does anyone sailing a ship, tending a flock of sheep, raising a family, cooking a meal, serving as a soldier.
In all of these learning/working environments "attention" was what your typical educator or pundit today calls "distraction." It was (and is) far closer to the idea of having 20 windows open across multiple monitors than it is to any activity in the typical classroom. What is the wind doing? What does the sky look like? Does Thor look like he's getting tired? What's moving behind that tree line? What animal left these tracks? I wonder if the dream I had last night means anything? Does this look like our last hunt/sail/mission?
We'd now call this "multi-tasking," pretending it is both new and difficult. I'd call it "human-tasking." It is one of the definitions of human operation. Sharks have one thing on their minds. Ants go about their business pretty single-mindedly. Humans take in the world, and assemble what they know through the most complex set of observations. And those observations are additive. If I watch how the students around me in the classroom behave it can actually help me understand everything from history to philosophy to economics. If I watch the rain begin to fall out of the clouds it may help me understand both science and poetry. If I overhear teachers talking I might be better prepared to understand Gramscian definitions of power.
Not every person does this the same way. Not every person handles the same quantities of information. There have always been the people who succeeded both ways. Sea captains who needed to handle a million bits of data constantly, bakers who operated with fewer inputs. Those who learned something the first time they saw it at age five and those who, despite the hundred times you've showed them, still can't quite record a television show for later viewing.
The classroom, the very structure of school, collides with these facts about human beings. By insisting that students - more-or-less - learn the same things at the same time in the same way, we limit learning in dramatic ways, removing context, removing thinking time, removing space for individual processing, and the option of a differing learning order.
This is why technology is so essential in the classroom. (see, you knew that if you stuck around I'd get somewhere) Not because technology is the only way to offer a varied learning environment, but because it is the only way we can do this without tearing down every school building and abandoning our idea of the school day.
Technology - computers, mobiles, etc. in all their configurations, linked to the internet - can allow each learner to adapt the school environment to their own needs. Those like my sister can roam the stacks of old libraries and find that book to concentrate on. Those like me can let the world flood in.
Resistance to technology is often (see any tech column on Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education) based in the belief in "gaze." The idea that if a student is not staring at a teacher, they are not learning. That's a powerful belief, but it now seems a historical blip in the history of the human species. 200 years, maybe 400 if you really want to stretch it, out of all the time since we climbed out of those African trees.
But technology is actually the humane way. The human way. It lets humans get back to their natural ways of learning.
At an end-of-the-semester party, a fellow student who'd sat next to me through seminar after seminar said, "He's amazing, I've never seen anyone work harder in a class. Everything he hears he looks up, then he looks up what that suggests. Then he answers email. Then he emails the class about what he found. Then he looks at a newspaper site. Then he looks something else up." I said, "Wow, you noticed." She said, "It was amazing to watch."
See. Neither of us was looking at the teacher. Both of us were learning.
- Ira Socol
- About Ira David Socol
- Freedom Stick and Firefox Accessibility
- The Change.Org Posts
- IdeaChat 11 February 2012
- Counting the Origins of Failure
- Technology: The Wrong Questions and the Right Questions
- Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I
- Today’s “School Reformers” vs Real Change for Education - II
- The Toolbelt and Universal Design - Education For Everyone
- "Evaluate that!" - Schools for Children