For the past 3 years I have taken part in a sort of alternative education ‘experiment’ at 5 middle schools in a school district north of San Francisco. The premise of this experiment is that punishing students for failing subjects, for bad behavior in class and for truancy can only go so far. At some point, the school, teacher or parent has to come up with a solution as expelling middle school aged kids typically leads to drug use, over reliance on video games and lack of an incentive / skills for societal involvement. The solution created involves keeping kids at the school site nearest to their home, yet in an alternative classroom where a multiple subject teacher and teaching assistant work much more closely with each student than in a standard class. The ratio of student to teacher is 10 to 1 as opposed to 30 to 1; the focus is on academics as well as social and emotional learning; and project based learning and field trips are woven into the curriculum to inspire creative application of academic concepts.
During my time as educator of project based social and emotional learning, I have noticed one trend that is pretty much universal among the alt-ed students in these classrooms: their reliance on technology and overuse of smartphones, Youtube and video games. Regardless of socio-economics and race (as each school is situated in a different area that results in demographic shift), the trend I have noticed is near universal with these kids: ask them to do a simple multiplication and they can’t answer without going to their phone calculator; ask a question about geography and they use Google maps; ask them to identify a definition and they ask Siri or Google. Initial attempts at removing technological distraction such as by putting phones away and keeping Chromebooks closed leads to blank stares, disinterest and a flare up of a suite of behavior management challenges.
One might observe that ‘of course’ these students act this way- they are, after all, the segment of our population that are failing or in danger of being expelled, and most likely they have some sort of learning disability or lack of support at home. While the latter is true in many cases, the former is mostly false as students in these alt-ed classes lack an IEP or ‘Individual Education Program’ plan that is created when a student has a learning disability that may prevent them from thriving in school. The one thing these students DO have is a form of ADHD where keeping their attention for more than 15 minutes is near impossible.
In thinking about this I was reminded of an article I read back in 2008 that first cued me into the possible dangers of Internet connectivity: entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? it is a fascinating read even today and worth checking out. A quote from the piece explains, “[Internet media] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” This phrase exactly describes what I see happening with the hundreds of 11-14 year olds I have worked with the last 10+ years, and not just with the students in alternative education classrooms. Middle school students in public, private and alternative education contexts exhibit shorter attention spans than anytime in history*. This statement comes from current research, personal anecdotal evidence from my own experience and from numerous principles, teachers and guidance counselors I have worked with; seasoned educators that have been in the educational realm for multiple decades.
A simple way to put it is this: students I work with in the alternative education classes and many from general education would much rather surf on Youtube than actually go surfing. And maybe they have a point? Actual surfing involves getting to a beach at odd hours, trudging through coastal plain and sand, getting wet in cold water (at least in Northern California) and the occasional run in with sea urchin spikes in your foot. Youtube does the work for you, includes the dopamine rush and you can do it from anywhere. The problem with the above is that as research shows, in accessing information online we are actually changing the way our brain processes information, many times with dire results: decreased academic performance, a decrease in the ability to focus on tasks and a general apathy for education and possibly the world in general.
Current solutions exist on both the social and technological fronts: work done by Common Sense Media can help us educate our youth on trends in digital citizenship, tech workers at Google and Facebook (among others) have launched a Center for Humane Technology, and websites such as www.wiseteched.com offer targeted social behavior change platforms to educate ourselves on the dangers of overuse of technology while changing social norms and neural pathways. The goal is to enable awareness and an increase in the ability to give our attention in focused and meaningful ways.
I recently went on a field trip to the California Academy of Sciences with two of the alternative education classes mentioned above. Each student was given a scavenger hunt worksheet that asked them to go to specific areas in the museum and write down responses. One question asked the students to answer, “In the exhibit The Color of Life, what is the term for the bending of light?” Rather than move from his seat near the cafeteria, I watched a student pick up his iPhone, cracks spread throughout the screen, and ask Siri “What do you call light that bends?” I couldn’t help but respect the fact he used the tool available to him.
*”There has been an 800% increase in the ADHD “epidemic” in the last 30 years. 6 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD (1 in 10 kids)” Glow Kids by Nicolas Kardaras