American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

Wired

Architect and designer Neri Oxman sits in her “Gemini” chaise, which was 3D-printed by Stratasys using a Connex Multi-Material printer, CNC milled by SITU Fabrication and designed in collaboration Prof. W. Craig Carter (Dept. of Materials Science, MIT). The chaise is part of the interactive creative learning environment at the author’s Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, Mass. It uses cutting-edge materials and technologies to provide an unexpected insight into the experience of being in the womb.

Are Americans getting dumber?

Our math skills are falling. Our reading skills are weakening. Our children have become less literate than children in many developed countries. But the crisis in American education may be more than a matter of sliding rankings on world educational performance scales.

David Edwards

David Edwards is a professor at
Harvard University and the founder of Le Laboratoire.

Our kids learn within a system of education devised for a world that increasingly does not exist.

To become a chef, a lawyer, a philosopher or an engineer, has always been a matter of learning what these professionals do, how and why they do it, and some set of general facts that more or less describe our societies and our selves. We pass from kindergarten through twelfth grade, from high school to college, from college to graduate and professional schools, ending our education at some predetermined stage to become the chef, or the engineer, equipped with a fair understanding of what being a chef, or an engineer, actually is and will be for a long time.

We “learn,” and after this we “do.” We go to school and then we go to work.

This approach does not map very well to personal and professional success in America today. Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover.

AGAINST THIS ARRESTING BACKGROUND, AN EXCITING NEW KIND OF LEARNING IS TAKING PLACE IN AMERICA.

Over the next twenty years the earth is predicted to add another two billion people. Having nearly exhausted nature’s ability to feed the planet, we now need to discover a new food system. The global climate will continue to change. To save our coastlines, and maintain acceptable living conditions for more than a billion people, we need to discover new science, engineering, design, and architectural methods, and pioneer economic models that sustain their implementation and maintenance. Microbiological threats will increase as our traditional techniques of anti-microbial defense lead to greater and greater resistances, and to thwart these we must discover new approaches to medical treatment, which we can afford, and implement in ways that incite compliance and good health. The many rich and varied human cultures of the earth will continue to mix, more rapidly than they ever have, through mass population movements and unprecedented information exchange, and to preserve social harmony we need to discover new cultural referents, practices, and environments of cultural exchange. In such conditions the futures of law, medicine, philosophy, engineering, and agriculture – with just about every other field – are to be rediscovered.

Americans need to learn how to discover.

Being dumb in the existing educational system is bad enough. Failing to create a new way of learning adapted to contemporary circumstances might be a national disaster. The good news is, some people are working on it.

Against this arresting background, an exciting new kind of learning is taking place in America. Alternatively framed as maker classes, after-school innovation programs, and innovation prizes, these programs are frequently not framed as learning at all. Discovery environments are showing up as culture and entertainment, from online experiences to contemporary art installations and new kinds of culture labs. Perhaps inevitably, the process of discovery — from our confrontation with challenging ambiguous data, through our imaginative responses, to our iterative and error-prone paths of data synthesis and resolution — has turned into a focus of public fascination.

Discovery has always provoked interest, but how one discovers may today interest us even more. Educators, artists, designers, museum curators, scientists, engineers, entertainment designers and others are creatively responding to this new reality, and, together, they are redefining what it means to learn in America.

At Harvard University, where I teach, Peter Galison, in History of Science, asks his students make films, to understand science; Michael Chu, in business, brings students to low income regions to learn about social entrepreneurship; Michael Brenner, in Engineering and Applied Science, invites master chefs to help students discover the science of cooking; and Doris Sommer, in Romance Languages, teaches aesthetics by inviting students to effect social and political change through cultural agency. Similarly, in the course I teach, How to Create Things and Have Them Matter, students are asked to look, listen, and discover, using their own creative genius, while observing contemporary phenomena that matter today.

Because that’s what discoverers do.

Learning by an original and personal process of discovery is a trend on many US university campuses, like Stanford University, MIT, and Arizona State University. It also shows up in middle school, high school and after school programs, as in the programs supported by the ArtScience Prize, a more curricular intensive version of the plethora of innovation prizes that have sprung up in the last years around the world. Students and participants in these kinds of programs learn something even more valuable than discovering a fact for themselves, a common goal of “learning discovery” programs; they learn the thrill of discovering the undiscovered. Success brings not just a good grade, or the financial reward of a prize. It brings the satisfaction that one can realize dreams, and thrive, in a world framed by major dramatic questions. And this fans the kind of passion that propels an innovator along a long creative career.

Discovery, as intriguing process, has become a powerful theme in contemporary culture and entertainment. In art and design galleries, and many museums, artists and designers, like Olafur Eliasson, Mark Dion, Martin Wattenberg, Neri Oxman and Mathieu Lehanneur, invite the public to explore contemporary complexities, as in artist Mark Dion’s recent collaborative work with the Alaskan SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum on plastic fragments in the Pacific Ocean. Often they make visitors discovery participants, as in Martin Wattenberg’sApartment, where people enter words that turn into architectural forms, or sorts of memory palaces. In a more popular way, television discovery and reality programs, from Yukon Men to America’s Got Talent, present protagonists who face challenges, encounter failure, and succeed, iteratively and often partially, while online the offer is even more pervasive, with games of discovery and adventure immersing young people in the process of competing against natural and internal constraints.

All this has led to the rise of the culture lab.

Culture labs conduct or invite experiments in art and design to explore contemporary questions that seem hard or even impossible to address in more conventional science and engineering labs. Their history, as public learning forum, dates from the summer of 2007, when the Wellcome Collection opened in King’s Cross London, to invite the incurably curious to probe contemporary questions of body and mind through contemporary art and collected object installations. A few months later, in the fall 2007, Le Laboratoire opened in Paris, France, to explore frontiers of science through experimental projects in contemporary art and design, and translate experimental ideas from educational, through cultural, to social practice. And in the winter 2008 Science Gallery opened in downtown Dublin to bring contemporary science experimentation to the general public (and students of Trinity College) with installations in contemporary art and design. Other culture labs have opened since then, in Amsterdam, Kosovo, Madrid and other European, American, Asian, African and Latin American cities. In the USA, culture labs especially thrive on campuses, like MIT’s famous Media Lab, Harvard’s iLab, and the unique metaLAB, run by Jeffrey Schnapp within Harvard’s Berkman Center. These will now be joined by a public culture lab, Le Laboratoire Cambridge, which opens later this month near MIT and Harvard, bringing to America the European model with a program of public art and design exhibitions, innovation seminars, and future-of-food sensorial experiences.

The culture lab is the latest indication that learning is changing in America. It cannot happen too fast.

We may not be getting dumber in America. But we need to get smarter in ways that match the challenges we now face. The time is now to support the role of learning in the pursuit of discovery and to embrace the powerful agency of culture.

Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep

Originally posted on Convent of the Sacred Heart Greenwich Middle School Parent Blog:

Motherlode - Adventures in Parenting
Photo
Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/to-keep-teenagers-alert-schools-let-them-sleep-in/">successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school</a>.

Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school.Credit Dan Gill for The New York Times

Sleep. Parents crave it, but children and especially teenagers, need it. When educators and policymakers debate the relationship between sleep schedules and school performance and — given the constraints of buses, sports and everything else that seem so much more important — what they should do about it, they miss an intimate biological fact: Sleep is learning, of a very specific kind. Scientists now argue that a primary purpose of sleep is learning consolidation, separating the signal from the noise and flagging what is most valuable.

School schedules change slowly, if at all, and the burden of helping teenagers get the sleep they need is squarely…

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Making Sense of Makerspaces

Edtechmagazine

Do-it-yourself ed tech opportunities abound for some schools.

Many school leaders carve out room for “makerspaces,” which encourage hands-on learning through the use of tools — anything from glitter and glue to homemade circuits, 3D printers and computer-aided design (CAD) software.

But not Aaron Vanderwerff. “The whole school should be a makerspace,” insists Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab and science coordinator for the K–12 Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, Calif. “We don’t want kids to think that making things is something you have to do in a separate area.”

Tools of the Trade

The makerspace toolbox includes technology, of course, but Vanderwerff’s students also rely on sewing, soldering and woodworking to learn. He’s open to any method that helps students more deeply understand concepts, noting that he recently helped students studying electricity create paper circuits that could be used in greeting cards, for example.

Alex Podchaski also has started creating a makerspace at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child in Summit, N.J.

According to Podchaski, director of technology, a sixth-grade student studying ancient Egypt recently used the makerspace’s MakerBot Replicator 2X experimental 3D printer to design, print and decorate a cosmetic case to resemble an archeological dig discovery. Other students have used the technology to print sarcophagi, mummies and even pyramids.

“The teacher makes the material lively and interesting,” Podchaski explains. “Technology then can provide additional meaning to what goes on in class.”

It’s important for educators to understand the impact that makerspaces can have on the community at large, adds Sarah Boisvert, founder of FabLabHub, which helps teachers launch digital fabrication makerspaces. “Makerspaces foster innovation across industries in entrepreneurship, design, art, manufacturing and education,” she says.

During Black History Month, for example, students used a fab lab at one high school to design and fabricate quilts. “They not only learned the history, but also incorporated math and CAD” —skills that are essential for economic growth in markets such as prosthetics and dental molds, Boisvert says.

Vanderwerff couldn’t agree more. “We’ve been teaching STEM in a traditional way for a long time,” he says. “If we integrate what we’re doing in the maker world, we are sure to attract more students.”

Can we change the professional development culture of communication?

eschoolnews

October 9th, 2014

In other cultures, constructive criticism is accepted without emotional offense

pd-critiqueOne of my first activities as an Outstanding Educator in Residence with the Academy of Singapore Teachers two winters ago was to observe elementary school students using laptops in a “hands-on” digital storytelling activity. At the front of the classroom stood a twenty-something teacher, only six months into her profession. At the back of the room were 20 observers–yes, 20–led by the principal of the school and including department heads, curriculum leaders, and several Singapore Ministry of Education representatives.

As I watched this young teacher work in front of this large group, I thought about how I had never been observed by a total of 20 educators in my entire 15-year teaching career. Yet, despite the size of the group and the potentially intimidating presence of the principal and Ministry of Education admins, this energetic young teacher showed no noticeable signs of nervousness, or signaled that this was some unusual event.

Because it really wasn’t. Foreign visitor aside, regular classroom visits by colleagues and formal discussions of pedagogical practices are the norm in the Singaporean system. In each Singaporean school, classroom visits and pedagogical analyses are often led by the principal of the school, who, in each and every case, has been a classroom teacher. As such, this gravitas earns them almost immediate respect and recognition from their faculty in pedagogical matters. It’s telling that Singaporean teachers will refer to the principal of their school as their institution’s “instructional leader.” It’s an apropos title that denotes the primary responsibility of the head of any Singaporean school.

Yet, even more striking than this large congregation of observers was the conversation that ensued afterwards. All of the observers, as well as a few additional participants, gathered in a room immediately after the class to discuss it. The principal gave a brief opening evaluation of the lesson and then asked us to critique it point-by-point. (We all received a copy of the lesson beforehand.)

And critique it we did: the teacher’s stated instructional goals, her preparation, her instructional strategies, her pacing, her interactions with the students, her technology guidance, her wrap-up, and other facets of her lesson. While we were impressed with this young teacher’s poise and skill, we identified many areas for improvement. Furthermore, the educators in attendance were quite pointed in their criticisms of the teacher’s performance, while always measured and objective in tone. As the “special guest” of the day, it also became clear that they expected me to critique her lesson in detail.

Then the teacher showed up. Whoa. If this were an American school I’d be hesitant to critique a colleagues’ work out of fear that they would take the criticism personally. I’d be concerned that it might damage our working and personal relationships and create an awkward situation for years to come. I’d likely be obtuse in leveling any criticism at the teacher’s practices and instead spend most of the time lavishing praise on the teacher’s pedagogical strengths.

Actually, this is what I sometimes did when I served on my former school’s teacher evaluation committee. Each time I had to deliver a 45-minute face-to-face performance evaluation, I would nervously anticipate how the teacher might respond to a few minutes of constructive criticism. I’d take out as many sharp edges as I could and hope that I wouldn’t offend my colleague.

But here in this Singapore classroom, the air was totally different. This teacher–younger than my eldest stepdaughter–did not look particularly anxious when facing me. Since the other observers were not retreating from the criticism they leveled before she arrived, I also told her what I honestly thought of the lesson. I extended deserved praise, but I also delivered pointed constructive criticism. At the end, she appeared genuinely appreciative.

Could we in the United States create school cultures in which instructing colleagues on how they might improve performance is not a rare and emotion-laden event, but rather an accepted and valued mechanism in the development of desirable professional practice?

Tom Daccord is the director of EdTechTeacher, a professional learning organization.

How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains

Photo

Researchers studied participants in an after-school exercise program.

Researchers studied participants in an after-school exercise program.Credit L. Brian Stauffer

Encourage young boys and girls to run, jump, squeal, hop and chase after each other or after erratically kicked balls, and you substantially improve their ability to think, according to the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children. The results underscore, yet again, the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health and development, especially in terms of the particular thinking skills that most affect academic performance.

The news that children think better if they move is hardly new. Recent studies have shown that children’s scores on math and reading tests rise if they go for a walk beforehand, even if the children are overweight and unfit. Other studies have found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure, with areas of the brain devoted to thinking and learning being generally larger among youngsters who are more fit.

But these studies were short-term or associational, meaning that they could not tease out whether fitness had actually changed the children’s’ brains or if children with well-developed brains just liked exercise.

So for the new study, which was published in September in Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign approached school administrators at public elementary schools in the surrounding communities and asked if they could recruit the school’s 8- and 9-year-old students for an after-school exercise program.

This group was of particular interest to the researchers because previous studies had determined that at that age, children typically experience a leap in their brain’s so-called executive functioning, which is the ability to impose order on your thinking. Executive functions help to control mental multitasking, maintain concentration, and inhibit inappropriate responses to mental stimuli.

Children whose executive functions are stunted tend to have academic problems in school, while children with well-developed executive functions usually do well.

The researchers wondered whether regular exercise would improve children’s executive-function skills, providing a boost to their normal mental development.

They received commitments from 220 local youngsters and brought all of them to the university for a series of tests to measure their aerobic fitness and current executive functioning.

The researchers then divided the group in half, with 110 of the children joining a wait list for the after-school program, meaning that they would continue with their normal lives and serve as a control group.

The other 110 boys and girls began being bused every afternoon to the university campus, where they participated in organized, structured bouts of what amounted to wild, childish fun.

“We wanted them to play,” said Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois who led the study.

Wearing heart rate monitors and pedometers for monitoring purposes, the children were guided through exercise that doubled as romping. The activities, which changed frequently, consisted of games like tag, as well as instruction in technique skills, such as how to dribble a soccer ball. The exercise curriculum was designed to improve both aerobic endurance and basic motor skills, Dr. Hillman said.

Each two-hour session also included downtime, since children naturally career about and then collapse, before repeating the process. In total, the boys and girls generally moved at a moderate or vigorous intensity for about 70 minutes and covered more than two miles per session, according to their pedometers.

The program lasted for a full school year, with sessions available every day after school for nine months, although not every child attended every session.

At the end of the program, both groups returned to the university to repeat the physical and cognitive tests.

As would have been expected, the children in the exercise group were now more physically fit than they had been before, while children in the control group were not. The active children also had lost body fat, although changes in weight and body composition were not the focus of this study.

More important, the children in the exercise group also displayed substantial improvements in their scores on each of the computer-based tests of executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand, than they had been at the start of the program, and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks.

Tellingly, the children who had attended the most exercise sessions showed the greatest improvements in their cognitive scores.

Meanwhile, the children in the control group also raised their test scores, but to a much smaller extent. In effect, both groups’ brains were developing, but the process was more rapid and expansive in the children who ran and played.

“The message is, get kids to be physically active” for the sake of their brains, as well as their health, Dr. Hillman said. After-school programs like the one he and his colleagues developed require little additional equipment or expense for most schools, he said, although a qualified physical education instructor should be involved, he added.

Extended physical education classes during school hours could also ensure that children engage in sufficient physical activity for brain health, of course. But school districts nationwide are shortening or eliminating P.E. programs for budgetary and other reasons, a practice that is likely “shortsighted,” Dr. Hillman said. If you want young students to do well in reading and math, make sure that they also move.

A Cure for Hyper-Parenting

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CreditNatalie Andrewson

PARIS — I recently spent the afternoon with some Norwegians who are making a documentary about French child-rearing. Why would people in one of the world’s most successful countries care how anyone else raises kids?

In Norway “we have brats, child kings, and many of us suffer from hyper-parenting. We’re spoiling them,” explained the producer, a father of three. The French “demand more of their kids, and this could be an inspiration to us.”

I used to think that only Americans and Brits did helicopter parenting. In fact, it’s now a global trend. Middle-class Brazilians, Chileans, Germans, Poles, Israelis, Russians and others have adopted versions of it too. The guilt-ridden, sacrificial mother — fretting that she’s overdoing it, or not doing enough — has become a global icon. In “Parenting With Style,” a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti say intensive parenting springs from rising inequality, because parents know there’s a bigger payoff for people with lots of education and skills. (France is a rare rich country where helicoptering isn’t the norm.)

Hyper-parenting is also driven by science. The latest toddler brain studies reach parents in Bogotá and Berlin too. And people around the world are breeding later in life, when they’re richer and more grateful, so the whole parenting experience becomes hallowed. Scandinavians complain of “curling parents,” a reference to the sport in which you frantically scrub the ice to let a stone glide across it. (In Norway, “we do not, for example, count goals in soccer for children under 12, because they should all feel like winners,” the producer said.)

Twenty-first century parenting isn’t entirely illogical. Rather than trying to eradicate it, I suggest a strategy of containment: Rein in its excesses, and keep it from getting worse. Based on my own research, an unscientific reading of parenting literature, and a sample size of three kids, here are some key things modern parents should know:

Babies aren’t savages. Toddlers understand language long before they can talk. This means you can teach them not to pummel you with carrots at dinnertime, making your life calmer (and your floor cleaner). “Expect more from your children, and they will rise to it. Expect less, and they will sink,” Emma Jenner writes in the book “Keep Calm and Parent On.”

Seize windows of freedom joyfully, without guilt. Remember that the problem with hyper-parenting isn’t that it’s bad for children; it’s that it’s bad for parents. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, college-educated American moms began spending more than nine additional hours per week on child care; this came directly out of their leisure time. The greatest insight to emerge from France since “I think, therefore I am” is that children’s birthday parties should be drop-offs. The other parents get three hours to go off and play.

Don’t just parent for the future, parent for this evening. Your child probably won’t get into the Ivy League or win a sports scholarship. At age 24, he might be back in his childhood bedroom, in debt, after a mediocre college career. Raise him so that, if that happens, it will still have been worth it. A Dutch father of three told me about his Buddhist-inspired approach: total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome.

Try the sleeping cure. Most parenting crises are caused by exhaustion. Force yourself to observe the same nighttime rituals as your toddler: bath, book, bed. When you feel an adult tantrum approaching, give yourself a timeout.

Have less stuff. Messiness compounds the chaos of family life.

Don’t worry about overscheduling your child. Kids who do extracurriculars have higher grades and self-esteem than those who don’t, among many other benefits, says a 2006 overview in the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report. “Of greater concern,” it noted, “is the fact that many youth do not participate at all.”

Don’t beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfect work-life balance. The French have national paid maternity leave, subsidized nannies, excellent state day care and free universal preschool, and yet they blame the government for not helping parents enough. We Americans have none of the above, yet we blame ourselves.

Teach your kids emotional intelligence. Help them become more evolved than you are. Explain that, for instance, not everyone will like them. “When a girl meets a new person, she often automatically strives to be likable, even before she has decided whether or not she likes the new person herself,” Rachel Simmons writes in her book “The Curse of the Good Girl.” “Tell your daughter to switch the order: Size up the person before you start worrying about what she thinks of you.”

Transmit the Nelson Mandela rule: You can get what you want by showing people ordinary respect. When Mr. Mandela heard that an Afrikaner general was arming rebels to prevent multiracial elections, he invited the general over for tea. The journalist John Carlin writes that Gen. Constand Viljoen “was dumbstruck by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail” and by his sensitivity to the fears of white South Africans. The general abandoned violence. Remind your kids that this technique also works on parents.

It really is just a phase. Unbearable 4-year-olds morph into tolerable 8-year-olds.

Don’t bother obsessing about what you think you’re doing wrong. You won’t screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you’ll do it in ways you hadn’t even considered. No amount of hyper-parenting can change that.

Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist and the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.”

WHY I JUST ASKED MY STUDENTS TO PUT THEIR LAPTOPS AWAY

I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.

So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.


We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can havenegative long-term effects on “declarative memory”, the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.

On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill.A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.


This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.


Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions. I have a classroom full of riders and elephants, but I’m trying to teach the riders.

And while I do, who is whispering to the elephants? Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, the list goes on, abetted by the designers of the Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students.) These designers and engineers have every incentive to capture as much of my students’ attention as they possibly can, without regard for any commitment those students may have made to me or to themselves about keeping on task.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Even a passing familiarity with the literature on programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.

The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.


The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peerssays it all:

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them.

Groups also have a rider-and-elephant problem, best described by Wilfred Bion in an oddly written but influential book, Experiences in Groups. In it, Bion, who practiced group therapy, observed how his patients would unconsciously coordinate their actions to defeat the purpose of therapy. In discussing the ramifications of this, Bion observed that effective groups often develop elaborate structures, designed to keep their sophisticated goals from being derailed by more primal group activities like gossiping about members and vilifying non-members.

The structure of a classroom, and especially a seminar room, exhibits the same tension. All present have an incentive for the class to be as engaging as possible; even though engagement often means waiting to speak while listening to other people wrestle with half-formed thoughts, that’s the process by which people get good at managing the clash of ideas. Against that long-term value, however, each member has an incentive to opt out, even if only momentarily. The smallest loss of focus can snowball, the impulse to check WeChat quickly and then put the phone away leading to just one message that needs a reply right now, and then, wait, whathappened last night??? (To the people who say “Students have always passed notes in class”, I reply that old-model notes didn’t contain video and couldn’t arrive from anywhere in the world at 10 megabits a second.)


I have the good fortune to teach in cities richly provisioned with opportunities for distraction. Were I a 19-year-old planning an ideal day in Shanghai, I would not put “Listen to an old guy talk for an hour” at the top of my list. (Vanity prevents me from guessing where it would go.) And yet I can teach the students things they are interested in knowing, and despite all the literature on joyful learning, from Maria Montessori on down, some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard.

Indeed, college contains daily exercises in delayed gratification. “Discuss early modern European print culture” will never beat “Sing karaoke with friends” in a straight fight, but in the long run, having a passable Rhianna impression will be a less useful than understanding how media revolutions unfold.

Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and act accordingly.