A Rebuttal to the New York Times’ “Growing Up Digital” Article

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we all should have much to be thankful for, and to be optimistic about.  After all, the holiday season is one that should be festive and uplifting.  So it is with a heavy heart that I felt compelled to respond to the extensive piece featured in last Sunday’s NY Times titled, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.” I tried reading the article with an unbiased view, but it became clear about halfway through the read that its author did not have an “unbiased” view either.  Instead of letting the evidence take him down the road, he let his agenda dictate the types of examples he would use to validate his points about the digital native and lack of focus.   So let the record show that I plan on rebutting the author’s premise point by point, using real world examples and empirical data, not conjecture.  With that being said, lets get started.

I have spent the last 20 years working with, and observing traditional and digital media, and how the consumer interacts with such stimuli.  A few years ago, while attending the TED 2008 conference in Aspen, Colorado, I came across a book that TED recommended titled:  “The Brain That Changes Itself.”  It disusses a cutting edge branch of neuroscience defined as neuroplasticity.  What does this mean?  It means that our thoughts can change the structure and function of our brains, even into old age, and  may arguably be one of the most important breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years.   Using case studies from real patients, Dr. Norman Doidge demonstrates that brain structures are NOT fixed and unchanging, as was assumed for centuries.   So with the changes in media consumption channels, it is no surprise that children’s brains have changed as well.   But sadly, our education system has NOT.  So while the author quotes a professor at the Harvard Medical School saying:  “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently,”  it should have been “whose brains are wired differently.”

The author tells the story of a student whose teachers call him “one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up.  Last semester, his grade point average was a 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F  in Algebra II.  He got an A in film critique.”   This is very telling, because it is a clear example of how teachers are not incorporating blended learning, or differentiated instruction techniques, in the classroom.  OUr education system historically has believed in standardization, yet students all learn differently.   This student is the typical “digital native,” and requires constant stimulation, networking, and instant gratification.  For multitasking, this student would receive an A-plus.

Herein lies the problem.  I will try and refute the notion that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning.  But this is precisely the problem.   The system is not promoting online learning tools or educational games or other learning modules that can intrinsically motivate students, while leading to successful learning outcomes.  Instead, they come home and take out their frustrations on shoot ’em up video games because they have had to sit through hours upon hours of boredom.  Learning needs to engage students, and keep their attention.  So why the fear of using devices that students are using as part of their daily lives?

It is important that parental monitoring is equally as important in the ecosystem.   in the article, one student blames “multitasking for the three B’s she received on her recent progress report.”  There is a time for socializing, and there is a time for learning.   Parents and educators need to set parameters around use of mobile phones, for example, in both school and at home.   Why are students texting their friends while doing homework?   At some point, you need to question the parents, not students.

Another excerpt in the article depicts a child “who has straight A’s but lower SAT scores than he would like, and blames the Internet’s distractions for his inability to finish either of his two summer reading books.”  Why does this taken is a truism?  I was in grade school before the Internet, had straight A’s (was ranked third in a class of 422), yet had lower SAT scores than many of my peers.   Do we truly think that the Internet’s distraction is this child’s problem?  I recall also having issues finishing reading books in school, especially if they weren’t enjoyable.  I don’t believe that the Internet is the problem here.

The student concludes by saying, “I believe my attention span is getting worse.”  How can this be true if the child can spend hours and hours on Facebook or playing a video game?  The problem lies in the way we are trying to teach our children.   The external environment has radically changed, yet our education system is still stuck in the age of the Industrial Revolution.   Researchers would probably have a boatload of questions about the detailed methodology behind the study referred to in the article that took place at German Sport University in Cologne.  The researchers were trying to compare an inherently passive medium (TV) with an inherently active medium (video games).  This is not apples to apples.

Now I will be the first to proclaim that everything needs to happen “in moderation.”   I do NOT advocate digital learning at the expense of every other form of media consumption.  But inventions will allows be subject to something called “free will.”  People will use them for good and evil purposes.  However, prohibiting their use will raise the probability of engaging in deviant behavior.   Instead of characterizing digital media devices as the root cause of raising a generation of distracted students with difficulty focusing on tasks, why don’t we look at creating fun, engaging learning products that stimulate and motivate our students.  Because at the end of the day, time on task should result in improved academic performance.   As one student in the article stated so simplistically, “I click and something happens.”

Can we find a way to allow students to “click” their way to academic success and improved learning outcomes?   I sure hope so, because we can’t allow the alternative to be the norm.  An educator states in the article, “I’ll always take one great teacher in a cave over a dozen Smart Boards.”  Why does it have to be an “either or”?   Because a good teacher should know how to use the right stimuli to reach every child effectively.

4 thoughts on “A Rebuttal to the New York Times’ “Growing Up Digital” Article

  1. As a high school science teacher who teaches with a mix of traditional and digital media I agree that we need to bring some of the same level of stimulation to our students differently wired brains. Some great games for example for teaching science are Immune Attack for the immune system and Spongelab for many aspects of Biology. My "virtual class" website includes youtube, games and mini-quizzes along with standard presentations. However I do not believe that we can just say that "students can spend hours and and hours on Facebook or a video game on the computer". They can't. They multitask their way though these events as well using this time to socialize and connect with their friends away from school. Multitasking is a valuable skill in the business world where you may need to be on the phone with a client, have a spreadsheet and word processing document open while simultaneously scanning e-mail for the update on the client's issue. However, true multitasking means complete focus on the task at hand. We need to teach our students how to truly multitask. We need to teach them how to be that one person in the room who is completely focused on the task at hand while chaos reigns. We need to teach them to train their brains.

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  2. Alison,Thanks for your comment, and I certainly agree with your sentiment. We have to teach students how to multitask effectively, and while online learning is an important tool that should be incorporated into the curriculum, it should be a "blended" learning experience. Too much of any one thing is never good.I'm glad that you are incorporating digital products into your toolkit. I have heard that Immune Attach is an excellent learning game!Thanks for reading, and do keep commenting!Al

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  3. Al,Thank you for taking the time to write this piece. I'm doing a lot of reading on this topic right now and I found your comments relevant. I had a couple of questions, though. Was this quote in error? Specifically "brain structures are fixed and unchanging." When I read this and then the quote following it I was a bit confused on what you were getting at."Using case studies from real patience, Dr. Norman Doidge demonstrates that brain structures are fixed and unchanging, as was assumed for centuries.""it should have been 'whose brains are wired differently.'"Also, with all of this talk about multitasking I wanted to get your opinion on whether you believe it truly exists. I'm getting closer and closer to the belief that multitasking isn't a skill that clearly communicates what a person is doing but rather what the person is attempting to accomplish. More specifically, it appears that multitaskers believe they are more productive when they have more and more balls in the air, rather than finishing one thing and getting on to the next. I read recently that studies around driving and using the cell phone have indicated that we don't attend to more than one thing at a time adequately enough. I would enjoy reading your response. Thanks.

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  4. Thanks for being such an attentive reader. Yes, I did seem to miss a very important word, and it was that Dr. Doidge demonstrates that brain structures are NOT fixed and unchanging. Thank you for pointing this out.You raise an interesting point about multitasking and how the term is used today. What I can tell you is that today's students are inundated with a great deal more stimuli than in previous generations. And generally speaking, they are much better able to manage the information deluge than their parents are. So while the older generation might feel that our children are unable to focus on multiple tasks, in reality, this is certainly not the case.Now I wouldn't go around proclaiming that it's ok for multitaskers to drive and talk on the cellphone at the same time; however, my sense is that multitaskers are able to accomplish several tasks concurrently. So to your point, I would be comfortable saying that a "multitasker is one who can accomplish several things concurrently, as opposed to finishing one thing and getting on to the next. The purpose of this distinction is to demonstrate the need for students to mirror real-world behavior. People always have several things to do, and must learn to manage them all within a fixed time period. If people were only able to focus on one thing before moving onto the next thing, they would undoubtedly fall behind. I hope you're able to follow my logic here, and thanks for sharing your comments with my readers.Al

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