U Prep facilitates professional development opportunities for the individual teacher, group of teachers, and whole faculty. This year, at least three of these sessions consider our new iPad and laptop program, wholly within the context of principles of teaching and learning and youth development. Today, we explored the topic of attention and mindfulness in the context of technology use.
On the one hand, we are working hard so that our school keeps up with rapid technological changes occurring in society. The main feature is a huge infusion of tablet and laptop devices that we have placed in students’ hands, plus consideration of how to change our instructional practices to take advantage of the many capabilities of this change.
At the same time, we heard a clear message from our community as we designed the program last year—we want and need balance in our lives. Balance between high-tech and low-tech learning environments; balance between email and face-to-face communication; balance between productivity and reflective practice.
What does imbalance look like? When we feel compelled to answer emails at our desk instead of seeing colleagues in the staff room. When we spend hours addressing a technical problem instead of getting work done. When we find students watching a video or playing a game instead of paying attention to class. Looking to the future, one might image a dystopic view of technology in our lives. Let’s take a look.
In one of our faculty summer reads, William Powers wrote:
We’re losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word, depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it’s astounding that we’re allowing this to happen.
What does balance look like? When tech is truly complementary, part of the environment, rather than taking center stage. When we have the necessary self-control to avoid immediately responding to that ding, buzz, or alert window. When we feel that our humanity is preserved in our very personal practice of living and working within a learning community.
Again, quoting William Powers:
History is replete with moments when some astonishing new invention came along that suddenly made it easier for people to connect across space and time. And those earlier shifts were as exhilarating and confusing to those who lived through them as today’s are to us.
Even in a hyper-connected world, everyone has the ability to regulate his or her own experience. It’s the same theme that great thinkers have struck time after time over the last two thousand years, but it keeps getting forgotten. The answer to our dilemma is hiding in the last place we tend to look: our own minds. The best tool for fighting back is still the mind itself.
We must move a step forward in our understanding of attention and mindfulness, so that we may open the classroom to technology without feeling ruled by it.
How do we achieve this? First, let’s understand that the study of attention and mindfulness with technology is an emerging field. Different approaches exist: some support each other. Others contradict. It’s quite likely that some combination of approaches will be best.
Let’s take a look at five approaches to attention and mindfulness in a technology-rich world. We may identify which aspects of these approaches have the most potential, so that we may implement them broadly throughout the school, incorporate them into our behavioral and professional norms and expectations.
This topic asks what brain research can tell us about learning and technology use. Karen Bradley, a teacher at Head-Royce School in Oakland, describes executive functions as, “our judgment, the ability to set priorities, to choose a ‘go’ versus a ‘no-go’ action, to distinguish junk from useful information.” The use of executive function is critical for young people to learn, as they make decisions about whether to pay attention in class, do homework, and consider thematic concepts in the curriculum.
Frequent interruptions by technology may impede executive function, as students lack the “quiet space” to think deeply, and as their working memory is bombarded by new inputs. Brain scientists such as John Medina tell us that multitasking is a myth, that frequently switching our attention is a detriment to productive thought.
Let’s take a whimsical look at multitasking with designer Paolo Cardini.
Megan Reimann is an expert in special education. She has taught study skills, resource room, language arts, and social studies and is a U Prep ninth grade parent. Megan currently specializes in working with students who have executive function deficits to help them create strong study habits. Megan ran one of our breakout sessions during the professional development day.
Our second topic is mindfulness. Did you know that you may actually hold your breath when you open your email app to check for new messages? The tense moment of uncertainty—what’s in there?—triggers our fight-or-flight response; our physiology is on high alert while we wait to find out.
How is our quality of life when these moments of alertness happen all day, in quick succession? What can we do to create contemplative spaces and improve our quality of life? How may we teach our students to do the same?
David Levy is a professor at UW’s Information School and an expert in information, contemplative practices, and the quality of life. David is a former computer scientist, researcher on the nature of documents, and student of calligraphy and bookbinding. Dr. Levy’s more recent work has focused on contemplative practices, the quality of life, and how to use digital tools more mindfully. He gave a superb talk on the activities teachers can organize for their students to promote self-awareness and mindfulness. This video provides a brief introduction to his work.
This topic looks at attention and mindfulness from the perspective of student engagement. Maybe our students and their technologies aren’t the problem. Maybe our educational paradigm needs to change instead.
Cathy Davidson, another of our summer book authors, asks whether we need to update our definitions of attention and engagement. She argues that distraction actually helps us receive a variety of input that supports creativity, connection, and collaboration. Instead of keeping technology at arm’s length, perhaps we should embrace it and change our educational environments to match. Information is no longer scarce, and teachers have a new, exciting role to play as the architects of student-directed learning environments. Progressive education and project-based learning meet technology in this topic.
In this video, Alan November describes one such learning experience (jump to 3:35).
“Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design” (Mizuko Ito et al)
“Exploring the Edge: New Learning Environments for the 21st Century” (John Seeley Brown)
This topic asks whether we feel uncomfortable with technology simply because we have not fully mastered it. Alerts and notifications can be turned off. We can get better at how we use communication and collaboration tools, so that they truly become part of the background of our educational environment.
In Send, David Shipley provides perspectives and techniques to allow you to take control of your email inbox.
Howard Rheingold invites us to tune our “crap detector” and “attention muscles” (to borrow a term from David Levy) to restore control over our electronic interactions. “Dive into the deep end,” Rheingold tells us.
Clay Shirky says that the problem is not information overload, rather it is filter failure. The key skill now is to be able to set up systems to bring the most relevant, stimulating content to our attention.
“Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies” (Howard Rheingold)
“It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure” (Clay Shirky)
“Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy” (Alison Seaman)
Students’ Social Media Lives
What are students doing behind those screens? Anthropologists Mimi Ito and danah boyd have a lot to tell us about how young people experience life through social media. Understanding their perspectives may help us work with students in classes and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of separating students from their devices.
Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (MacArthur Foundation)
“Teens and Technology 2013” (Pew Research Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)
“Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” (Pew Research Center, Berkman Center for Internet and Society)