Boon and Bane — Technological Brothers

cellAs it says in the Bible, “Technology giveth and technology taketh away.” Thus, for administrators and teachers, the bottom line for any use of technology should be student learning. Does the data show that students are learning more thanks to technology?

A secondary question centers on teaching methods. Yes,, the old-school questions on designing and executing lessons still count. Bells and whistles mean little if used in the wrong way or even too often.

Why is newer and better technology not a slam-dunk? According to this interesting article there’s the little matter of focus and attention spans. In order to make the leaps possible thanks to technology, we need to put the hazards possible thanks to technology in students’ hands.

Parents of students with homework requiring the computer know the drill. Johnny starts on the page the teacher assigned, but then begins to “multi-task” by bringing up additional windows. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. ESPN. E-mail. God-knows-what dot all-is-not-com.

You see the problem. Doubt distraction’s ability? Think students can overcome it with ease? Consider this. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence who is quoted early and often in this piece, says, “Children I’m particularly worried about because the brain is the last organ of the body to become anatomically mature. It keeps growing until the mid-20s.”

The area of the brain in question is the pre-frontal cortex, and reaching your mid-20s may not be the magic bullet, either. Anyone who has sat in on a faculty meeting where administrators talked up front for an hour (or more) while teachers had laptops opened knows that teachers, too, suffer from digital distraction. The view from the rear is not pretty. These people are not taking notes or referring to any website mentioned at the fore, they are frittering time away with their digital binkies. Just like the kids.

Goleman advocates for a daily “digital sabbath” — a period of time every day where everyone, even in one-on-one schools, just puts the gizmos away and indulges in some “mindful practice.” His reason? It’s a darned good one, backed by research. From the linked article:

Perhaps the most well known study on concentration is a longitudinal study conducted with over 1,000 children in New Zealand by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychology and neuroscience professors at Duke University. The study tested children born in 1972 and 1973 regularly for eight years, measuring their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Then, the researchers tracked those same children down at the age of 32 to see how well they fared in life. The ability to concentrate was the strongest predictor of success.

“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. That could be a problem for students in the U.S. who often seem addicted to their devices, unable to put them down for even a few moments. Teachers say students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems, said Goleman. These are signs that educators may need to start paying attention to the act of attention itself. Digital natives may need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.

Key line: The ability to concentrate was the strongest predictor of success.

So you see, as teachers we not only take on the task of using technology wisely, we take on the concurrent task of teaching attention and focusing abilities — both with technology and without. If that looks easy from your vantage point then you have a better seat than I do. Much better.

How many of you made it this far on this post? Chances are, quite a few readers did not. They got distracted by something better, flashier, easier, more tempting, and more to their fickle liking. For a few seconds, anyway. Then they moved on yet again.

And why not? Unlike real life — which we are charged with preparing our students for — it’s all at our finger tips. This means we must not only teach students when and how to use technology, but when and how not to.

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