Friday, December 6, 2013

Focus. I can. . . squirrel!

They call it multitasking. It isn't. It's being distracted.

A lot of us joke about. . .squirrel! It's funny, but not really. We all suffer from it. We're Pavlovian in our response to the ding, chirp, or ring tone that signals a new message. It could be important and I have to know NOW.

When I'm trying to focus, to really dig in and get work done, I turn off any chimes, dings, whooshes, chirps, or other noises that will notify me of some message. . . on Facebook, on Skype, on LinkedIn, on email, on Twitter, on anything. I must disconnect to focus.
Important research compiled on the effects of students multitasking while learning shows that they are losing depth of learning, getting mentally fatigued, and are weakening their ability to transfer what they have learned to other subjects and situations.
In that same article (May 2013), educators recognized the double-edged sword of technology in the classroom. It's a useful tool, but it's a distraction. But one teacher also acknowledged that it's likely "that many students aren't being challenged and engaged enough to stimulate their brains in class." She wonders what would happen if teachers were "given more leeway at all levels. . . to teach important concepts in-depth, students would find the learning we are doing more intriguing and would be less likely to head to Facebook for a distraction."

She raises a good point. And the teacher who wants her students to boldly take risks without technology underestimates, I think, the importance of students knowing how to use their technology most effectively as they take those risks. Let's face, the Internet makes one heckuva discovery tool.

But the concern for learning to focus is, as noted in this article, "Age of Distraction: Why It's Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus," well, crucial.
The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning on KQED’s Forum program.
There are two things in this article that seem particularly alarming. First, the relationship between concentration and empathy. “'The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,' Goleman said. . .This is also the part of the brain that allows people to control themselves, to keep emotions in check and to feel empathy for other people." I can infer that those who have little ability to focus will have little ability to manage their emotions and to feel empathy for others. The consequences of that are stupendous.

Dr. Goleman goes on to say that the ability to focus "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” and teachers observe that "students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems." Now, some of that student comprehension could be the students, could be the materials, and could be the teaching and/or the teacher. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it's true that students have more difficulty comprehending texts and partially because they struggle to focus.

The implications for teachers and education are profound; the implications for our future is even more profound.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

School relevance for the digitally distracted

Howard Gardner, father of multiple intelligences, has written a book with Katie Davis: The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. And The New York Times recently published a review of said book.

I haven't read the book so I'm not reviewing that, but the review did cause me to think a bit about this digital generation and about the need for digital connectedness. As is the case with so many things, concern about digital distraction is not new.

When I was at the movies the other night, I wasn't really surprised by how quickly those little screens started glowing as people raced to see what they had missed, perhaps to tweet some thoughts about the film. It's hard to know.

When I travel, I'm annoyed by the people who walk through the airports with their eyes glued to their smartphones. I actually laughed out loud when two business people crashed into each other because they'd been looking down at their devices. First they looked anger, and then they were abashed. After awkward apologies, they went on their ways. Only a few steps later, eyes back down. Lesson clearly not learned.

Don't get me wrong. I love technology. New stuff comes out and I start to salivate figuring out if I really need it or just want it. It's usually the latter. Any technology comes with impacts and consequences, many of which we cannot possibly be aware because people are constantly surprising inventors by the way they choose to use a product.

Part of the review reads
How is school still relevant, the young man wondered, when we have devices and search engines at the ready with knowledge and information? If the challenge seemed cocky, beneath it lay a very pertinent question about the ways in which traditional education may need to evolve to keep up with a changing world. But instead of engaging in a potentially fascinating discussion about the philosophy of knowledge and what we truly need to learn to succeed, Gardner shut the kid down by telling him phones contain answers to all the questions “except the important ones.” 
I appreciate the student's question: how is school still relevant? What kids need to learn and continue to learn is that it's not just about the information and that knowledge doesn't come from looking something up on the Internet.

School can be relevant only if teachers--at all levels and in all content areas--are teaching students how to make use of that information, how to assess the veracity and quality of it, how to choose which information is the best information out of all the possible resources available, and more. That all of that work is when learning, practice, and discovery become knowledge.

School can continue to be relevant as students continue to learn what it really means to be a lifelong learner, and that it's more than just having access to information. That knowledge isn't what one looks up, but what one acquires over time as a result of a wide range of experiences, including school.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Serendipity of Learning

I wish I could take credit for this title, but I've swiped it quite boldly from the title of an article of the same title. As I noted when I scooped the article, I love the idea of serendipitous learning.

I came back to this article and this idea with a bit of wistfulness. For the past several months, I've had the privilege of working with educators who are implementing Common Core. Various approaches, various interpretations, various degrees of success. In fact, because of much of the conversation prompted by Common Core, I'm going to begin my own series on Common Core. Stay tuned for that.

One of the topics in the Common Core discussions is "productive struggle." Now I have to say that this is not a new idea. Richard Allington, a long-time educational leader with an emphasis in reading instruction, wrote in You Can't Learn Much from Books You Can't Read (2002) about struggling readers, mismatched textbooks, and encouraging students to struggle but not become frustrated. He repeated and elaborated on some of those ideas in Doing Right by Struggling Readers (2013). Perhaps we haven't always called it "productive struggle," but good teachers have always encouraged students to work beyond their perceived limits.

When I was a kid, I'd ask my mom how to spell a word or what it meant. Her response, "Look it up." Didn't seem to matter if I had no idea how to spell the word. And I remember sitting on the floor with that big dictionary on my lap getting lost in the words. Fast forward to high school and I remember sitting at my desk with the dictionary, just thumbing through it. I'd completely forgotten what I'd meant to look up.

Serendipitous learning. In my mind, learning that occurs unexpectedly in the midst of purposeful learning and which, one might hope, causes a tug of excitement in the student who just learned something through a brief foray down a rabbit trail or by feeling safe enough and encouraged enough to ask one of those potentially weird (aka open-ended, higher-order thinking) questions to which no one in the room knows the answer, but which the student is encouraged to explore. "I don't know, but that's an interesting question. Let's take about 5 minutes to see what we might discover. Maybe we'll see how that adds to what we're trying to learn today."

Right then. Discovery. Collaborating during the excavation and then finding even more unexpected connections. . .that the students make and to which the teacher might contribute.

Yes, the teacher is keeping a watchful eye on the clock and the day's learning objectives but immediately recognizes that this occasional expeditions of learning make some of the more commonplace experiences look, feel, and sound different. Maybe even better.

Yea, come on kids of all ages. Let's do some serendipitous discovery learning today.