I was an archetypical progressive educator, respecting the autonomy of students and empowering them to follow their passions and not just the curriculum pacing guide. But in terms of classroom management, I was “Old School,” insisting that students “work smart and work steady” from “bell to bell.” One tradition that I passed down was my parents’ and grandparents’ admonition to “pay close attention, I’m only going to show you once.”
As with my adult mentors, my directions were accompanied with a grin. We weren’t demanding obedience but teaching the younger generation to “keep your head in the game,” to “work smart,” and to “learn how to learn.”
Perhaps the greatest failing of Baby Boomers is that we reneged on that responsibility and didn’t teach kids the habits, the mindsets, and the ethics required to learn how to learn from their cell phones. We abdicated our responsibility to teach media and digital literacy. Schools are finally being forced to confront one of our most challenging but most crucial question: How can we control digital technologies and not be controlled by them?
Jane Meredith Adams writes in Edsource about “one school’s attempt to revive the art of the face-to-face conversation. No earbuds. No head phones. No music. No photos. No bent necks. No phones.” Korematsu Middle School in the East Bay of San Fransisco had tried the normative process of restricting phoness to lunchtime and passing periods, but it became clear to the principal. “we would never do that again.”
The middle school learned the lesson that our society is still trying to duck, the “rise of cell phones and social media has created a generation that spends less time with friends and more time alone in their rooms on their phones.” As a growing body of cognitive research explains, “teenagers who spend more time online than they do with their friends are the most likely to report being lonely and feeling left out.”
To take just one example, Jean Twenge wrote in The Atlantic that research has shown, “the presence of a cell phone — even if it’s face down on the desk or in a bag, on silent — limited a person’s thinking and memory.” Other research finds, “Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to social media.”
More than 5,000 schools have shown the documentary “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.” The producer of “Screenagers,” who is a doctor, is prompting the conversation with children that we should have started long ago. And we as a society are reluctantly starting to probe into the role of social media plays in the dissemination of “alt facts” and our bitter conflicts over identity politics.
As our entire culture takes on the characteristics of Attention Deficit Disorder, it would be tempting to abandon the goal of teaching our kids to, "pay close attention." As all of our attention spans grow shorter, it would be nice if we could toss our concentration skills on the ash heap of history. As the world speeds up, however, we must preserve at least some of our old-fashioned study skills.
Reading, for instance, is changing and we cannot hold back the tide. But the essence of literacy must be preserved - at least until we can lay a foundation for an equally profound replacement. The same applies to cultural and artistic literacy. We adults cannot predetermine what the attention spans of subsequent generations will be. Nor should we try. We should take our stand by umpiring a structured discussion on the principles that we seek to preserve. It is not up to teachers to preordain which of our favored values survive, but we must protect the integrity of the schooling process.
Finally, "Pay close attention; I'm only going to show you once," must not be seen as an artifact of a teacher-centered world that is obsolete in a world made "flat" by technology. We must remember the key words within the spiritual context of “The Death of a Salesman.” “Attention must be paid." We all have a moral core, and we all want attention to be paid to our humanity. The hearts of teens today are as hungry as those of preceding generations. We must appeal to their emotional centers. I doubt there is another power on earth that could pry their fingers off of their text messaging contraptions.