NYT Article: Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

There’s an interesting article in this week’s New York Times called “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” and it’s all about the impact of technology on adolescent development and education. The article focuses on a high school senior from Redwood City and his struggle to balance his time between a demanding academic schedule, his love for filmmaking and video editing, and an active social networking life. There are a lot of interesting things going on in this article—some are great, and others are problematic.

I think what’s really not helpful in this article is that it kind of glosses over the idea that technology can be used effectively in many classrooms and many contexts—not just in specialized courses, and not at the expense of proven teaching methods. It alludes to teachers’ intuitions that there are broad misappropriations of technology in the classroom—“I’ll always take one great teacher in a cave over a dozen Smart Boards,” the audio technology teacher remarks tellingly—but the author fails to explore this point in much detail. Instead, the article seems to set up technology in the classroom as a sort of all-or-nothing proposition: technology is either all-good or all-bad; technology is absolutely “the answer” or a misguided, faddish intruder set to derail educational practice altogether. There isn’t much discussion of the middle ground between kids who benefit enormously from technology and others for whom it’s causing adverse educational outcomes.

For example, in the school featured in this article, technology is working well in classrooms where the subject matter is technology, like filmmaking or publishing. The teacher in the technology class relates how many of his students are at-risk students who are otherwise disengaged from school; technology in the classroom, he argues, was the best solution to reach them—in his words, it was about “meeting them on their own turf.” On the other hand, a Latin teacher at the school laments, “When rock ‘n’ roll came about, we didn’t start using it in the classroom like we’re doing with technology.” For him, technology is just one more fad, one more empty way for teachers to connect artificially with their students without much substance.

This quip from the Latin teacher seem like a bit of an unfair contrast; it seems like the article’s author has cherry-picked his quotes to contrast the bright, shiny Macs in the editing lab with the most curmudgeonly quip possible from the teacher of a dead language. Yes, the Latin program has seen dwindling numbers and the technology program at this school has flourished; however, that doesn’t necessarily tell us the whole story about the impact of technology on student learning. It might suggest something odd going on with the school’s foreign language programs that’s more related to the decreasing national emphasis on foreign language education and less related to technology (in an aside, the author noted that a small fleet of iPads still wasn’t enough to lure students to take Mandarin at the school). The clearest common ground between these two camps seems to be a shared intuition that adolescents require emotional engagement to succeed academically, and the article consequently offers some insight into something that the best teachers know already: the adolescent brain craves variety, and it will embrace that variety almost regardless of context.

I think the most important point to take home from this article is the impact of technology usage on adolescent brain development. Think about a time when you’ve struggled to remember a fact, like a friend’s birthday or the name of a movie you saw last month. You can’t come up with it when you’re actively thinking, so you give up for a while, only to have the fact come to you all of the sudden a few minutes or hours later. This happens because the brain continues processing and reorganizing information even after you’ve stopped consciously “thinking” about that information.

This is the same reason that it’s really worthwhile to study a little each day over several days, since your understanding of a history chapter or a geometry concept can deepen and expand a little each day, even without your conscious effort. It’s one of the most extraordinary things about the brain: it keeps working and processing and consolidating information even when you’re not actively engaged in any of those processes.

The catch is that the time in between those homework problems and history classes has to contain real downtime. That is, you have to get real rest in the form of sleeping, eating, exercising, or otherwise relaxing. You’ve got to do something that disengages your close attention to tasks like reading, writing, making decisions, paying attention to several things at once, and prioritizing which information to pay attention to next.

When you’re an adult, those pathways for information retrieval become highly efficient. The brain knows exactly where to “look” for information you’ve previously learned about birthdays and movie titles and the periodic table and the quadratic formula. As a child, you don’t have those efficient pathways yet because the brain is still learning how to store things in the first place; that is, you don’t have an organized, efficient way yet for your brain to “look” for that information because the brain is still learning about what it can expect from the outside world. (The infant brain doesn’t know it has to even learn and store things like birthdays and movie titles; it’s still discovering that it has feet and that sounds exist.)

As an adolescent, your brain is finally at the point where it “knows” what to expect from the outside world and it can start to solidify those efficient pathways for information storage and retrieval. That work happens when the brain is not actively engaged. This is why teenagers need so much sleep.

In adolescence, there is more brain development taking place than at any other time in life other than the period right after birth. Infants are faced with an entire world of stimuli that they’re working hard to assimilate and accommodate, to use the language of one of the fathers of cognitive psychology, Jean Piaget. During high school, the brain is hard at work once again, this time trying to make the most efficient, most reliable pathways between the incredible amounts of information it’s learning and the many choices it’s faced with every day. The hope is for your brain to develop an efficient, effective network of pathways that will help you seamlessly take in all sorts of information and take thoughtful action as a result. Those pathways develop from alternating periods of intense learning and downtime. However, if your brain is not allowed to practice building those pathways, they won’t be built. And if you deprive your brain of the downtime it needs to build those pathways, your brain will never develop into the most efficient machine it could be.

Multitasking isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, one of the most important developments of late adolescence is executive function, one component of which is the ability to prioritize tasks over one another when faced with a variety of competing choices. However, if you spend too much time multitasking and not enough time doing nothing, all of your work will suffer. Or at least be a lot less fun.

When you text, search for YouTube videos, play MMORPGs, and spend time on Facebook, you’re using the same parts of the brain that are at work in learning: you’re still reading and analyzing text, you’re still writing, and you’re still having to decide what to pay attention to and for how long. You’re still having to juggle your attention span among several competing factors, just like in a classroom with a lecturing teacher, a presentation on a smart board, discussion from classmates, and a sweeping view of San Francisco Bay.

This is why television-watching and social media usage are so different: watching television is almost completely passive, while social media is all participation, all the time. Active engagement with social media is fun, but it can be tiring for your brain. If you don’t give the brain considerable downtime after learning—whether by exercising, talking face to face, or sleeping—your brain won’t have the time or stamina to consolidate what you’ve learned into retainable information.

So bake cupcakes. Play with your dog. Go for a walk. Then come back to your homework or come back to your phone and Facebook. You might find that you suddenly understand one part of your chemistry homework that seemed impossible three days ago. You might find that you’ve remembered the name of the movie you wanted to tell your friend about. Either way, the take-home message is this: take a break.

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