The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

Imagine you are a fly on the wall in a corporate training center where a management team of 12 is participating in a session on executing strategy. The team is midway through attempting to solve a new, uncertain, and complex problem. The facilitators look on as at first the exercise follows its usual path. But then activity grinds to a halt — people have no idea what to do. Suddenly, a more junior member of the team raises her hand and exclaims, “I think I know what we should do!” Relieved, the team follows her instructions enthusiastically. There is no doubt she has the answer — but as she directs her colleagues, she makes one mistake and the activity breaks down. Not a word is spoken but the entire group exude disappointment. Her confidence evaporates. Even though she has clearly learnt something important, she does not contribute again. The group gives up.

What happened?

In an earlier article, “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” we reported our research findings that teams with high levels of cognitive diversity performed better on these kinds of challenges. In these groups, we observed a blend of different problem-solving behaviors, like collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. These techniques combined were more effective than in groups where there were too many rule-breakers, or too many discipline-maintainers, for example.

But in the case of these 12 managers, they did show a cognitively diverse approach. So what happened? We returned to our data to find out. In this team, as well as other under-performing teams, we observed a smaller percentage of the group contributing, longer intervals between testing ideas, and greater repetition of the same mistakes.

The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

So the question is, how do you establish and maintain psychological safety with a cognitively diverse group?

The Generative Organization

Over the last 12 months we asked 150 senior executives from different organizations across the world to rate their organizations in terms of cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and the extent to which they consider their organization able to anticipate and respond to challenges and opportunities, i.e. their adaptability. Not surprisingly, adaptability correlated very highly with high levels of both cognitive diversity and psychological safety. We called these organizations “generative,” and labelled the worse-performing organizations oppositional (high diversity, low safety), uniform (low diversity, high safety), and defensive (low in both).

We also asked the same 150 executives to choose five words (from a list of more than 60) that best described the dominant behaviors and emotions in their organization. To identify which behaviors correlated with the best- and worst-performing groups, we matched the chosen words with the levels of reported psychological safety and cognitive diversity. The table below shows the most common behaviors selected by each group:

W180326_REYNOLDS_THEMOST

In the Generative quadrant, we find behaviors associated with learning, experimenting, and confidenceTogether they facilitate high quality interactionInterestingly, “forceful” appears here too, which at a first glance might seem surprising. Exploring this further, participants were identifying the assertive expression and vigorous analysis of ideas. “Forceful” therefore relates to having the confidence to persist in expressing what you think is important. Psychologically safe environments enable this kind of candour without it being perceived as aggressive. Note that we also see more positive emotions in the generative and uniform quadrants.

By contrast, in the other quadrants we find words associated with control and constraint. These behaviors are conspicuously absent from the Generative quadrant. We see more negative emotions as well.

The Behaviors That Count

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

For example, hierarchical behavior is cited as one of the top 5 dominant behaviors 40% of the time in the non-generative quadrants. It is only cited 15% of the time as a top behavior in the Generative quadrant. This is not because the organizations in the Generative quadrant have a flatter structure — hierarchy is a fact of organizational life — but because hierarchy does not define their interactions. We see controlling cited 33% of the time as a top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared with only 10% in the generative quadrant. We see directive cited 24% of the time as top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared to only 5% in the generative.

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently. The result is a lack of deep understanding, fewer creative options, diminished commitment to act, increased anxiety and resistance, and reduced morale and wellbeing.

A psychologically safe environment ignites cognitive diversity and puts different minds to work on the bumpy and difficult journey of strategy execution.

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.


Alison Reynolds is a member of faculty at the UK’s Ashridge Business School where she works with executive groups in the field of leadership development, strategy execution and organization development. She has previously worked in the public sector and management consulting, and is an advisor to a number of small businesses and charities.


David Lewis is Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme and teaches on strategy execution and leading in uncertainty. He is a consultant and works with global corporations, advising and coaching board teams.  He is co-founder of a research company focusing on developing tools to enhance individual, team and organization performance through better interaction.

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Are Today’s Teenagers Smarter and Better Than We Think?

Photo

Emma González, center, is among the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students leading the movement against gun violence. CreditChip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today’s teenagers have been raised on cellphones and social media. Should we worry about them or just get out of their way?

A recent wave of student protests around the country has provided a close-up view of Generation Z in action, and many adults have been surprised. While there has been much hand-wringing about this cohort, also called iGen or the Post-Millennials, the stereotype of a disengaged, entitled and social-media-addicted generation doesn’t match the poised, media-savvy and inclusive young people leading the protests and gracing magazine covers.

There’s 18-year-old Emma González, whose shaved head, impassioned speeches and torn jeans have made her the iconic face of the #NeverAgain movement, which developed after the 17 shooting deaths in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Naomi Wadler, just 11, became an overnight sensation after confidently telling a national television audience she represented “African-American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper.” David Hogg, a high school senior at Stoneman Douglas, has weathered numerous personal attacks with the disciplined calm of a seasoned politician.

Sure, these kids could be outliers. But plenty of adolescent researchers believe they are not.

“I think we must contemplate that technology is having the exact opposite effect than we perceived,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult.” “We see the negatives of not going outside, can’t look people in the eye, don’t have to go through the effort of making a phone call. There are ways we see the deficiencies that social media has offered, but there are obviously tremendous upsides and positives as well.”

“I am fascinated by the phenomenon we are seeing in front of us, and I don’t think it’s unique to these six or seven kids who have been the face of the Parkland adolescent cohort,” says Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”

“They are so direct in their messaging. They are so clear. They seem unflappable.”

Dr. Damour, who has spent her career talking and listening to teenagers, said she believes the Parkland teens are showing the world the potential of their peer group. “Those of us who live with teenagers and are around them can see something that is different about this generation,” she said.

There is still much to learn about the postmillennial cohort — social scientists haven’t even agreed on when this generation begins, although there seems to be a consensus forming that the year 2000, give or take a few years, is a good place to start. But data collected from various health surveys already show that today’s teens are different from previous generations in many ways.

Many risky behaviors have dropped sharply among today’s teens. Cigarette smoking among teens is at a historic low since peaking in the mid 1990s. Alcohol use has also declined significantly — the number of teens who have used alcohol in the past 30 days is down by half since the 1990s. Teen pregnancy rates have hit historic lows, and teens over all are waiting longer to have sex than their parent’s generation. Teen driving fatalities are down about 64 percent since 1975. Some of that is attributed to safer cars, but teen crashes have declined between 10 and 30 percent in states with tiered licensing systems, and teen drunken driving has dropped while teen seatbelt use has increased.

While most health researchers celebrate these changes in teen health, some scientists think the trends suggest a lower level of maturity among today’s teens. Perhaps teens are safer simply because their reliance on social media and smartphone use means they are getting out less. In September, the journal Child Development published a study by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, noting that there is a decline in a number of “adult” activities among today’s teens. In seven large, nationally representative surveys of eight million American adolescents from 1976 to 2016, fewer adolescents in recent years are having sex, dating, drinking alcohol, driving, working for pay and going out without their parents.

“The big picture is that they are taking longer to grow up,” said Dr. Twenge, whose latest book is “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”

In an article in The Atlantic last fall titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Twenge argued that teens are more comfortable in their bedrooms or on smartphones or social media than at a party. While they are physically safer than past generations as a result, rates of teen depression and suicide are on the rise. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” she wrote. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

But a number of social scientists and adolescent health researchers disagree with that conclusion. While teen depression and suicide rates are worrisome, there is no causal link to show those trends are the result of smartphones and social media. In fact, a literature review by Unicef researchers in December found that moderate use of digital technology tends to be beneficial for children’s mental well-being, while no use or too much use is associated with a “small negative impact.” The larger issues that affect a child’s well-being are family functioning, social dynamics at school and socio-economic conditions, the report concluded.

Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital,” said he believes today’s teenagers are better communicators than any previous generation. “They didn’t grow up being the passive recipients of somebody else’s broadcast,” he said. “They grew up being interactors and communicators. In the 1960s we had a generation gap. What we have today is a generation lap — they are lapping their parents on the digital track.”

The clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel interviewed groups of middle school and high school students around the country in 2015 and 2016 for her new book, “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It and When to Listen.” Dr. Mogel spoke with diverse kids from various regions and walks of life, but found herself consistently impressed by their thoughtfulness, how much they liked their parents, and how much they cared about the world around them.

“The press and general public like to see them as spoiled and not having to work hard for anything except grades and being very entitled,” Dr. Mogel said. “But they’re courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”

Neil Howe, a historian whose books include “Millennials Rising,” said that unlike earlier generations, today’s teens have accepted the structures of society and have learned to work within those boundaries. “They’re very good at using rules to make their point, and they’re absolutely excellent at negotiating with their parents, and negotiating in a reasonable way about how to bend these rules in a way that will make them more effective and give them more space,” he said. “This is not a ‘throw the brick through the window and burn stuff down’ group of kids at all. They’re working very constructively, arm-in-arm with older people they trust, to make big institutions work better and make them stronger and more effective.”

Ms. Lythcott-Haims notes that the current crop of teenagers is the first generation to grow up with active shooter drills since kindergarten. “I think what we might have here is a generation that really defines itself by the markers of their childhoods,” she said. “In addition to being marked by these gun violence tragedies, they came to consciousness with a black man in the White House and smartphones in their hands.”

What does all this mean for the future of today’s teens? All of the researchers agreed there is still much more to learn about this cohort, but what we know so far is promising.

“We are in the process of distilling the data and discerning who they are, but I am excited,” said Ms. Lythcott-Haims. “We don’t know who they will be in their 20s, but already they have agency, the sense of your own existence, your own right to make decisions and your own responsibility for outcomes and consequences. That’s what we need to have to be mentally well. I think these folks could turn out not to be just leaders, but to be a generation that we look back on and end up calling one of the greatest.”

Can Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

EdWeek

Editor’s Note: Karen Martin, elementary teacher and instructional coach for Denali Borough School District in Alaska, traveled to Finland as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantee. She visited over 50 different classrooms and observed almost 70 different teachers and teacher trainees. Her biggest takeaway: that Finnish teachers think and teach in a way that encourages inquiry. Here’s how she brought this lesson back home.

By guest blogger Karen Martin

It is difficult to observe, let alone internationally benchmark, thinking, but one of the most profound lessons we can learn from Finland is how to nurture the development of a “thinking profession” of teachers. If we want to create an intellectual, thinking culture for our students, it is imperative that it also becomes the norm for teachers.

Through many conversations and interviews with Finnish teachers, I began to realize that they fundamentally approach their work differently than American teachers. These teachers are the product of an intentionally designed education philosophy called research-based teacher education, which has as its central goal to educate inquiry-oriented teachers. The outcomes of this type of training are competencies that empower teachers to utilize scientific skills and thinking to critically examine their own practice and to make reflective changes in the moment as they teach. The integration and development of a scientific understanding of educational research and the research process supports a mindset of reflection and evidence-based inquiry that infuses throughout their pedagogical knowing and practice.

How Do You Help Teachers Develop a Research Mindset and Skills? 

The question I carried with me throughout my adventure in Finland was how could I transfer my learning to my own context to benefit the professional lives of my colleagues? When I returned to my school district, I worked with a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to create a continuing education course titled, “Engaging Teachers in Action Research.”

karen_martin.pngThrough this course, my teaching colleagues and I developed the basic technical competencies to design participatory action research projects. Through the course, my colleagues could begin to understand how research thinking can be used to more objectively tackle recurring problems of practice and use new types of evidence to critically inform our decision-making, reflections, and our impact.

In the first year of our action research work, eight teachers collaboratively designed investigations to better understand and affect student engagement. Our collaboration forged relationships of authentic trust as we exposed ourselves to the vulnerability of opening up our classrooms to each other, sharing our fears and struggles in teaching, and working collectively to find answers to difficult problems that have persisted throughout our teaching careers.

How Do You Change Teacher Thinking?

One of the most powerful lenses and sources of evidence that my colleagues and I continue to utilize in our action research is a method of analyzing our own thinking in moments of teaching. This is accomplished through a method called “guided reflection” that uses video analysis. In our action research projects, we use video recordings to capture our classroom teaching for analysis of evidence. We then watch the videos of our teaching with a colleague within days of recording a video.

In the videos, we choose critical incidents that help us understand our pedagogical decisions related to our research questions. We analyze these critical incidents by asking what happened, why did it happen, what were we thinking when it happened, and why were we thinking that?

Through this intentional method of developing reflective thinking, we gather evidence directly related to our own impact within our classrooms and have increased our strength and capacity to inquire into our teaching practice at a deeper level. The use of video study has made us more mindful and changed our interactions and metacognition while we are present with students.

Can Experienced Teachers Learn to Think Differently?

During the second year of our action research, our cohort decided to investigate the concept of learned helplessness to better understand how we as teachers influence the ability of our students to persevere and develop positive beliefs about learning. Collectively, we asked:

  • How do we influence these behaviors in our students?
  • How can we influence our students’ beliefs about learning?

Fundamentally, these questions are at the very core of our most important and transferable work with students—their ability to become self-regulated learners and their productive beliefs about learning.

The year-long investigation included seven different classrooms in our K-12 school and helped us to better understand what our students believe about learning. We engaged students in conversations about making mistakes, we structured student reflections around making thinking visible, we explicitly taught content about how the brain learns, and we made discussions about what learning feels like part of classroom culture.

Most importantly, our work involved video study analysis of the specific language we used with students and how we interact with students in the moments of teaching. These video reflections helped us realize how we needed to change our teaching behaviors to allow students to do the rigorous work of learning. It is only through video study that we observed how often we rushed in to help our students and how the specific language we used rescued our students from productive struggles and learning.

Through action research, including the use of video reflection, we have witnessed a powerful shift in the embedded beliefs of experienced teachers (some with over 20 years of experience), who had never stopped to question their own thinking and actions. We are experiencing some of the principles and outcomes of Finnish research-based teacher education.

By investigating our own practice and learning to reflect deeply on our pedagogical thinking and decision-making, we have initiated a powerful shift in our classroom cultures that has more firmly placed learning in the hands of our students. The impact of this work on our students and teachers is tangible. Teacher action research and the use of video study for guided reflection can change teacher thinking in a way that positively impacts the culture of learning for students.

Connect with Karen and Heather on Twitter.
 Image created on Pablo

References:

Husu, J., Toom, A., & Patrikainen, S. (2008). Guided reflection as a means to demonstrate and develop student teachers’ reflective competencies. Reflective Practice 9(1), 37 – 51.

Kansanen, P. (1991).  Pedagogical thinking: the basic problem of teacher education.  European Journal of Education, 26 (3), 251 – 260.

Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

Kids raising hands in an elementary school class.

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit

pimchawee

Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All signs point to the screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

In Praise of ADHD

Photo

CreditSarah Mazzetti

Ten years ago, when my son Nicolai was 11, his doctor wanted to put him on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It would make him less wild,” I explained to my mother, who was then 85. “It would slow him down a bit.”

My mother grumbled. “Look around you,” she said in Yiddish. “Look how fast the world is changing. He doesn’t need to slow down. You need to speed up.”

It was a surprising recommendation from someone who had never learned to use a microwave. But recent research suggests she had a point: Some people with A.D.H.D. may be naturally suited to our turbocharged world.

Today the word “hyperactive” doesn’t just describe certain individuals; it also is a quality of our society. We are bombarded each day by four times the number of words we encountered daily when my mother was raising me. Even vacations are complicated — people today use, on average, 26 websites to plan one. Attitudes and habits are changing so fast that you can identify “generational” differences in people just a few years apart: Simply by analyzing daily cellphone communication patterns, researchers have been able to guess the age of someone under 60 to within about five years either way with 80 percent accuracy.

To thrive in this frenetic world, certain cognitive tendencies are useful: to embrace novelty, to absorb a wide variety of information, to generate new ideas. The possibility that such characteristics might be associated with A.D.H.D. was first examined in the 1990s. The educational psychologist Bonnie Cramond, for example, tested a group of children in Louisiana who had been determined to have A.D.H.D. and found that an astonishingly high number — 32 percent — did well enough to qualify for an elite creative scholars program in the Louisiana schools.

It is now possible to explain Professor Cramond’s results at the neural level. While there is no single brain structure or system responsible for A.D.H.D. (and some believe the term encompasses more than a single syndrome), one cause seems to be a disruption of the brain’s dopamine system. One consequence of that disruption is a lessening of what is called “cognitive inhibition.” The human brain has a system of filters to sort through all the possible associations, notions and urges that the brain generates, allowing only the most promising ones to pass into conscious awareness. That’s why if you are planning a trip to Europe, you think about flying there, but not swimming.

But odd and unlikely associations can be valuable. When such associations survive filtering, they can result in constructive ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have been thought of. For example, when researchers apply a technique known as transcranial stimulation to interfere with key structures in the filtering system, people become more imaginative and inventive, and more insightful as problem solvers.

Individuals with A.D.H.D. naturally have less stringent filters. This can make them more distractible but also more creative. Such individuals may also adapt well to frequent change and thus make for good explorers. Jews whose ancestors migrated north to Rome and Germany from what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories show a higher proportion of the A.D.H.D. gene variant than those Jews whose ancestors migrated a shorter distance south to Ethiopia and Yemen. In fact, scientists have found that the farther a group’s ancestors migrated, the higher the prevalence of the gene variant in that population.

Or consider the case of the Ariaal, a Kenyan tribe whose members through most of its history were wild-animal herders. A few decades ago, some of its members split off from the main group and became farmers.

Being a wild-animal herder is a good job if you are naturally restless; subsistence farming is a far tamer occupation. Recently, the anthropologist Dan Eisenberg and collaborators studied whether people with A.D.H.D. might thrive in the former lifestyle but suffer in the latter. They found that among the herders, those who possessed a gene that predisposed them to A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Among the farming Ariaal, the opposite was true: Those who lacked the genetic predisposition for A.D.H.D. were, on average, better nourished. Restlessness seemed to better suit a restless existence.

A.D.H.D. is termed a disorder, and in severe forms it can certainly disrupt a person’s life. But you might view a more moderate degree of A.D.H.D. as an asset in today’s turbulent and fast-changing world. My mother, now 95, long ago realized that speed is the essence of our era. Her intuition about Nicolai proved correct, and she has lived to watch her grandson thrive without taking the A.D.H.D. medication she was dead set against.

Laptops in the Classroom

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

Professors are banning laptops in class, driving college students to revert to handwriting—and to complain about it; ‘a hand cramp in government’

The Wall Street Journal

Handwriting notes in class
Handwriting notes in class PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Adam Shlomi says he is a good student at Georgetown University. But the sophomore is failing in one unexpected area: note-taking.

Back in his Florida high school, he brought a Chromebook to class, taking “beautiful, color-coded notes.” So he was shocked to learn many professors at the elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., don’t allow laptops in their lecture halls.

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

With nearly illegible handwriting—a scrawl of overlapping letters with interchangeable t’s and f’s, g’s and y’s—Mr. Shlomi, 20 years old, begs notes from friends, reads textbooks and reviews subjects on YouTube when it’s time to take a test.

As professors take a stand against computers in their classrooms, students who grew up more familiar with keyboards than cursive are struggling to adjust. They are recording classes on cellphones, turning to friends with better penmanship and petitioning schools for a softer line.

Chris Seeley, a senior political-economy major at the University of California, Berkeley, can handle an hour-long class that bans laptops. Ninety minutes gets tough. A two-hour lecture, such as one this semester, is brutal.

Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes
Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes PHOTO: ADAM SHLOMI

“My hand is yelling at me, basically,” he said of the feeling after handwriting final exams.

Mr. Seeley, 22, has established some shorthand, such as writing “nat” for “nation” or “national.” He isn’t always consistent with how he abbreviates, he said, and if he waits more than a few weeks to review the notes, deciphering the terminology can get confusing.

Professors are weary of looking out over a sea of laptops, with students’ faces aglow from who knows what. Are they taking notes? Ordering sneakers on Amazon? Checking out memes?

Some lament that students’ speedy typing lets them transcribe on autopilot, rather than synthesize class information.

“I got really tired of seeing them out there on their laptops and doing something other than pay attention to me,” said Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas associate journalism professor. She banned laptops three years ago from her Visual Storytelling class and now tells students when it is time to pick up their pens and take notes on a particular point.

Students complain professors just don’t understand how hard it is to write by hand.

Students using laptops to take notes
Students using laptops to take notes PHOTO: JEFF PACHOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s hard to know how many college classes have gone laptop-free, as schools generally leave the policies up to professors. Some students can get to graduation logged on in every lecture hall, while others bemoan that the majority of their courses have banned electronic devices.

Laptop bans come as a generation of students who didn’t learn to write in script enters college. Though some public-school districts do require cursive instruction, Common Core education standards that guide many states’ curriculum policies don’t emphasize it.

Many public schools now encourage students to work on computers, some providing devices for them, making it all the more shocking when they enter college.

Faculty members say they make exceptions for students with disabilities, though those concessions are sometimes criticized because they “out” students who otherwise might not publicly disclose issues such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, an inability to write coherently.

University of Connecticut junior Christopher Wojick, 21, who studies landscape architecture, was tempted to lobby his sociology professor for a laptop allowance last year.

“That class was ridiculously hard to take notes in,” he said, recalling the professor’s speedy pace. “I was thinking, ‘Hmm. Do I have a disability?’ I was very close to making something up.”

He thought better of it and stuck to scribbling for the rest of the semester.

Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes.
Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes. PHOTO: ISABELLA BAHNER

Isabella Bahner, 19, a sophomore music-education major at Oklahoma State University, is sick of classmates nudging her for notes.

She has an elaborate system: a 12-pack of Sharpie pens and highlighters to organize her text in real-time, each color assigned a meaning. Red is for terms that are relatable or opposites; yellow for new vocabulary; green for people; light blue for dates. Highlight too fast, and the colors blur together.

“I definitely get a hand cramp in government and physical geography,” she said.

Friends know Ms. Bahner has thorough notes, and she’ll help out if they missed a class. But when someone comes calling who was at the lecture and didn’t bother to pick up his pen, she draws the line.

“They’re skipping or being lazy and then trying to bank off the fact that I go” and take good notes, she said.

The Cornell University student government last year unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the faculty to allow “greater freedom of student laptop usage.” Charles Van Loan, an emeritus professor of computer science and faculty dean at Cornell, said there was “zero interest” from the faculty senate in having such a policy for laptop use. “Keyboard noise is not protected under the First Amendment,” he said.

Noah Chovanec, 21, a senior industrial and labor-relations major who co-sponsored the resolution, said he prefers to write by hand, though it’s often disorganized and carries in smudges when he writes fast. “I probably should be pre-med, with my handwriting,” he said. “People have asked for my notes, and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to have to translate for you.’ ”

Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class.
Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class. PHOTO: NOAH CHOVANEC

Articles by professors instituting bans go viral every few months, often inspiring another set of teachers declaring tech-free zones.

Many of them point to academic studies showing that students taking computer notes retain less than those who handwrite, that multitasking makes people less effective at any single task and that grades can suffer when internet distraction is an option.

Rev. Kevin DeYoung, who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., had one student drop his class last fall because of a no-laptop policy.

Still, he’s pushing on with his device-free stance. “You’re not trying to be court stenographers,” he said, but rather learning how to identify important information.

This semester, Mr. DeYoung is going a step further in Pastoral Ministry, requiring students to participate in a weeklong digital fast. Afterward, they have to type a paper about the experience.

Mr. DeYoung got pushback from one unexpected source: his father, who works in radio. “He said, ‘You did what? I would never take your class.’ ”