Saturday, September 15, 2007

Paying Attention

My blood pressure’s taking a beating these days, and this past week made me wish that there were a magic bullet pill one could take to lower it when necessary. My cardiologist insists that people can’t “feel” their blood pressure elevate—but I think he’s wrong. I can always tell, and I can usually predict what will do it. Usually the morning and evening doses of the regular meds actually do the job, but sometimes I have to sit back and breathe deeply, do a little meditation, and relax in order to overcome whatever sets me off.

This time it was a YouTube video asking me to think about teaching with technology. Well not so much asking me to do so, but insisting that if I didn’t, I would potentially “enrage” my students when what I need to do is to “engage” them. In what amounts to an animated PowerPoint presentation put out by the Jordan School District in Utah (called “Pay Attention”) the now-familiar exhortations to make use of powerful new technologies are ramped up with suggestions on how to use cell phones in the classroom (“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”—I kid you not!), getting kids to text-message people to find out what they had for breakfast, what the weather’s like where they are, and to name their last purchase. This is followed by a claim that the gathered data can be used for all sorts of applications (all of which flash onto the screen). I didn’t take notes.

Where I come from, this is not called education; this is called pandering. This is also a classic example of the failure of modern educators to distinguish between is and ought. Mind you, I’m perfectly willing to use technology to teach. I’ve maintained a website for my students since 1999, and have encouraged the use of computers as an aid to research. I’m quite happy to use videos to augment my lectures, and I use PowerPoint as an image-delivery system in my art history and humanities classes. I might even be willing to suggest that students download certain audio programs to their iPods, if I were to hear of something useful. But I do ask them to unplug the minute they walk through the classroom door, because I simply can’t compete when they’re all wired up to their myriad electronic devices. No computers are allowed for note-taking, either (without special accommodation requests), and no recording devices. My “etiquette” lecture at the beginning of each quarter warns of dire consequences if they breach the established parameters. This is necessary because despite what students insist, they cannot “multitask.” The concept is baloney. They already have attention spans that can be measured in nanoseconds (thanks to Sesame Street and Madison Avenue), so I just don’t need the constant distractions.

To educate, according to the OED, means to “lead forth.” And although the first definition listed focuses on the physical upbringing (to rear by supplying physical wants—more on this later), the second refers to “bringing up” in regard to “forming habits, manners, intellectual, and physical aptitudes.” The third expands the idea to include the training of any person (not just a child) “so as to develop the intellectual and moral powers generally.” All of these are true to the original Latin sense (educo) in regard to raising children. The Greek notion of pedagogy (although it originally referred to the literal leading of a boy [sic] to school) is also grounded in the notion of training, discipline, leading forth. To pander, on the other hand, means “to subserve or minister to base passions, tendencies, or designs” when it doesn’t refer to ministering to the gratification of another’s lust.

I suppose, in regard to the supplying of “physical wants” that one might argue on behalf of desire, and make some cute remark about the necessity of personal technologies, but it would be specious, and beside the point. The education of desire begins with the recognition that our students don’t really need any of this. What they actually need is to know how to make their way in the world, how to survive. And with the technologically-infused “education” we’re foisting on them (from an increasingly early age, according to “Pay Attention”), we are not leading them forth; we’re leading them astray.

Of course they need to know how to use these tools; in my school, we are training everyone from interactive media designers to fashion designers, all of whom will use these technologies every day when they go out into the world to practice what they’ve learned. The scary moment comes when we ask them if they know how they work: what they’re made of, what their components do, how the raw materials were obtained. Not only do they not know these things, but they don’t even know to ask the questions, and without asking the questions, how will they ever care whether or not those computer chips require the devastation of mountain gorilla habitat?

Years ago, the notion of technology assessment preoccupied many of us who studied the history and philosophy of technological development. Even though the ethical implications of emerging technologies seemed to be of some interest, however, the main concern centered on the potential commercial applications of new tools and methods coming out of scientific research: Teflon developed for the space program ending up lining frying pans, etc. Of course, a more complete assessment might have turned up the potential for developing cancer from ingesting Teflon particles, but that kind of study wasn’t done. It seldom is. We kill a large number of rats and ruin the eyesight of countless bunnies to create new drugs and cosmetics, but we’re notoriously short-sighted when it comes to labor-saving devices with potentially huge profit margins.

Rather than simply throwing technology at our students in an effort to grab their attention for the next thirty seconds, perhaps we can consider other ways to engage them. We should not make the same mistake that the well-intentioned producers of Sesame Street did all those years ago, when they helped to reify children’s 1.5 minute attention spans by creating short vignettes designed to hold their interest for just that period. Advertisements, with their flashy thirty-second screen presence sealed the deal, and any parent who has let his or her child watch television in the last thirty years is complicit. The job of educators nowadays must include devising ways to lengthen the amount of time our students can stay engaged. All of the really worthwhile things we do in life—reading, thinking, conversing, eating and drinking, watching sunsets, making love—take time.

There’s no reason why we can’t rely on our own interest in our own subjects to spark a similar interest in our students. What was it about archaeology that drew me to it in my youth (before the days of Indiana Jones)? Why does the natural world fascinate me so? Why do I want my students to love these things, too? Instead of getting them to text-message one another, maybe we could just take them out to lie on the grass and watch clouds roll by.

This week’s assignment: read Lowell Monke’s essay, “Unplugged Schools: Education can ameliorate, or exacerbate, society's ills. Which will it be?” in the September/October issue of Orion Magazine. Then, if you have to watch television, turn on Sunrise Earth and watch it with a child. There’s nothing like an hour of watching moose eat breakfast in Jackson Hole to lower your blood pressure and make you want to get up and face the world.

Photo: Clouds over El Morro National Monument, New Mexico. Winter 2003


krimzon11 said...

This "Pay Attention" video is definitely a debatable topic. I think the point of using a cell phone is a bit extreme. I'm all for using technology as a resource, but if theres one thing I learned from the Greeks, it's everything is good, in moderation. Just like Icarus' revelry in flight, technology is taking my generation by storm. The question is, will we learn from this age old tale, or will we, yet again, fall victim to it, just as Icarus fell victim to the sea?

I think that what you've done with your classes is a great way to engage, and you've done it by moderation. People need to interact with other people, using all the senses. It's how we learn (you've already stressed this point in your brief statement on taking notes.) The internet is a great and vast resource, and so is the library. While I admit, I usually use the school library for school research, It provides that physical interaction that is so essential.

I can see the point of the video, calling to the teachers to engage their students, but I view some of the methods as extreme. While communication is made easier with technology, technology can't teach communication. That's where your "Unplug" philosophy comes into play. Communication, is mostly gestural as opposed to verbal. How can a teacher expect to communicate and engage their students, when they remove the gestural side of the lesson? Also, I suggest that the principal who is quoted with, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," needs to try harder. He's a school principal for goodness sake! If you can't beat 'em, teach 'em!

Owlfarmer said...

Amen! You might be interested to know that the problem of extraneous technology in the classroom is not mine alone. Take a look at the comments in this (one of my new favorite blogs) post on Learning Curves:

You're definitely right about balance; the Greek notion of "nothing to excess" is particularly pertinent in a world that seems to revel in the excessive (too much of everything, or not enough of anything). And now, despite all my moderation, I have begun to lust after the iPhone. See what you've done?