Category Archives: Technology

Alternative Technology Education

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

 

 

 

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One Nation Under Screens

It’s no secret technology has completely altered the world in just a few years. Look at the way children grow up. Just a generation ago, kids used to play outside for hours. They rode bikes to their friends’ houses and didn’t come home until after dark. They interacted with their buddies in nature, used their imaginations, played contact sports and ran around. To be sure, that reality hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it has certainly evolved.

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Image Credit: mytoenailcameoff

A recent Kaiser Foundation study found that children use entertainment technology 7.5 hours per day. In addition, 75% of kids have TV’s in their bedrooms and 50 percent of North American homes have the TV on all day. These statistics don’t show the full picture, however. It’s not just television screens. Children tend to be going online at younger and younger ages. A report  released by educational non-profits, Sesame Workshop and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, revealed that 50% of US children between the ages of 6-9 are online daily.

In recent years, considerable emphasis has been placed upon the idea that novel new forms of technology will solve educational problems. Though amazing advances have come from our increasingly interconnected society, a nation of kids glued to their screens is not the ideal solution. What’s needed is a balance between the advantages of copious amounts of information as a desirable tool, and a harmonious integration between nature and the people surrounding us.

Author and child advocacy expert, Richard Louv has spoken out about this issue, going so far as to create a growing body of research on the need for direct exposure to nature in order to better raise physically and mentally healthy adults. His book, Last Child in the Woods, attempts to curb disturbing childhood trends, such as increased obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorders. Louv is just one of many thought-leaders challenging the status quo when it comes to the new reality of the wired generation. Screenagers, a compelling new documentary by filmmaker Delaney Ruston, explores this issue. In her movie, Ruston examines how powerful digital influences, such as social media, internet addiction, video games, and social media can be pervasive in shaping the impressionable minds of teenagers.

What’s most needed in our discussions of this emerging issue is a dispassionate sense of perspective, however. Every age brings its own unique set of improvements, coupled with concerns and challenges. We are fortunate to live in times of immense technological discovery and wonder. The trick is to find the necessary balance between utilizing our great new tools for unprecedented advances while curtailing their adverse effects. The first and necessary step in this process is to create awareness. By recognizing the new state of things we can begin to make positive steps towards living in greater harmony with our screens, the people around us, and the natural world.

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Technology as a Lens

In working with youth, we often have the discussion of what role technology plays in their lives- How much do you use your phone? What games do you play?? Are you on the internet a lot???

Invariably, these questions lead to many “yes” answers and vocal exclamations of the awesome-ness of new technology. The problem with this discussion is that the above questions are not the correct questions to ask youth. Why? Because the fact of the matter is, youth will be using technology much more than any predecessors did, and at what some may claim an alarmingly high rate.

The correct question we need to ask youth is this: How are you using technology? and perhaps most importantly, For what purpose? This frames the issue in a much more personal way- instead of a simple “yes” and “no” format, youth can begin querying with themselves what actual role technology is playing in their lives. If its gaming, then the answer to the above questions could be “for fun”, “to hang out with friends online”, yet a deeper issue could emerge such as “I use my computer to feel connected to the world”. Once the discussion becomes about how we feel, it automatically becomes personal.

A simple way to talk about technology is to discuss it as a “tool” or “lens” – we use technology as a way to understand the world, feel connected, stay in touch, etc., but we acknowledge that technology is not the only way to do these things. When Roots to Branches works with youth during service learning projects or rites of passage groups, we have this discussion early on to discern something we feel is VERY important: technology is not the goal, but a means to achieving the goal. It is the lens we can view the world through, but in itself is NOT the world. As adults we might take this distinction for granted, yet we need to create the understanding in youth today that technology will not solve the worlds problems- it is the people that use technology as a lens; that know how to understand the limits to its use; who can successfully navigate the world with understanding of who they are and how to use the tools around them, without getting lost in the process.

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