Tag Archives: #google

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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The fallacy of teenage rebellion

Growing up as a teenager I was told by friends, teachers, my parents (among others) that my teenage years were the time for rebellion. It was assumed that a child between the ages of 14 and 18 would by definition lash out against adult figures, authority, the system in order to move through some innate urge triggered by hormones, peer pressure and social anxiety.  Then, once we graduate from high school, turn 19 and go to college a magical transition happens and we are told the time for rebellion is over- the focus shifts to choosing a major, finding a career, getting married, etc.

To be honest, I did feel a need to rebel, yet I was and am still not convinced teenage rebellion is given a proper voice in our society. Perhaps the act of rebellion, rather than a phase that one must go through that represents hormonal shifts and labeled as “teenage angst”, is actually a cry for a shift in the way our culture deals with education (more like ‘instruction’), and the destruction of our true selves in order to fit into a societal mold.

Before going off the deep end into philosophical quagmire, let us imagine a world where teenagers are NOT rebelling against authority. Picture a classroom where every child 14-18 is obediently absorbing every thought, belief and byte handed to them. In this world, where is the innovation? Where is the challenge of the current paradigm in order to make way for the future? The teenage act of rebellion is not merely a hormonal shift (although one might say the hormones enable the rebellion to exist), but rather a precursor vision that something being taken for ‘normal’ and ‘necessary’ needs to change. Rebellion, when given proper context and a voice, helps the world shed its old skin and step into a new, necessary way of being.

And what happens when rebellion is not given a place, or is merely stereotyped, told to go in a corner, and count to 10? Google search ‘teenage violence’, ‘suicide rates’, ‘youth drug use’, ‘bullying’, ‘sexting’, ‘depression’, etc. etc. and you will have your answer. The world as we know it is screaming that there is something wrong with youth, yet rather than look at the distress signals as a sign to create a system that can listen to the message, we place a label on teenagers to isolate them and continue with business as usual.

My thoughts on rebellion, especially when looking at specific cases of youth who are ‘acting out’ is that teenagers are using rebellious behavior to tell us they are looking for more responsibility, more personal meaning in the world, and a place in which to share their feelings. All we need to do is open up the space to listen.

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The Art of Unplugging

Recently, we were tasked with the re-opening of a Youth Center in an existing town community center. The premise was to create a place for youth to come and hang-out after school, do homework in a collaborative environment, and utilize services available to them. When we talked with local youth about what activities they envisioned in a Youth Center, we were given a list of items: pool table, ping pong, computers with internet access, video games, etc. Seeking to establish credentials with the youth by providing items on their list as quickly as possible, we procured two items immediately available: a donated pool table and an X-box 360.

Since opening a month ago, we have noticed a steady shift in the youth that started coming to the Center. The first wave of youth were excited at the possibilities of accessing homework portals, yet due to unforeseen bureaucratic red tape, items such as internet enabled computers to access Edmodo and  Google Docs are still in the works. The results have been a focus shift in users – youth unable to access online information for homework either go elsewhere or have been drawn to the X-box. As facilitators overseeing how the Center is being utilized, we noticed that many of the students who originally started using the space for homework began dwindling away, and more youth who were excited at the prospect of joint gaming began showing up to do homework as quickly as possible and then “plug in”.

The dilemma this shift has caused is now in acute focus. As creators of what we call “dynamic learning environments”, R2B believes youth need to learn in many contexts with many tools. This includes the belief that in order to empower the inherent learning abilities in a student, sometimes we need to “unplug” the learning environment from technological portals so a student can see the world through their own eyes. An example of this came when we noticed students who showed up at the Center to do homework were increasingly distracted at the noise and energy of the video gaming, even when it happened in an adjoining room. We also noticed that when gaming took place, the students begin speaking to the game and not to each other. We recently watched the documentary Play Again about youth overuse of technology, and it showed a fascinating statistic stating youth engage in approximately 3 minutes of meaningful dialogue with parents on a given day, yet have over 500 minutes of “screen time” per day.

The discrepancy between leveraging what youth want and what we believe youth need is a large one. In order to engage a youthful audience and gain their trust, we need to speak their language and acknowledge their interests, without sacrificing the values that we believe to be vital for a sustainable future. Our approach at the Youth Center began by engaging youth in what their interests are, yet based on our experience with the video games, we need to begin creating models of how youth can “unplug” in order to “reconnect” to themselves. This begins next week, when the X-box will no longer be available, and youth will need to find alternative ways of “hanging out”.

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