Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Counter Cultural -- and Counter-Intuitive Response -- to Gadget Overload (A Rant)

"Now think of yourself as a battery. You really are, you know. Your brain runs on chemically converted electrical current...Okay, the point is this: everything you think, everything you do, it all has to run off the battery. Like the accessories in a car...
Watching TV, reading books, talking with friends, eating a big dinner...all of it runs off the battery. A normal life -- at least in what used to be Western civilization -- was like running a car with power windows, power brakes, power seats, all the goodies. But the more goodies you have, the less the battery can charge. True?"  
 -- Glen Redman, The Stand by Stephen King (1989 or earlier)

Before we talk of human beings and batteries and how the comments of a mid-level character in a 25+ year old book got me motivated to write this blog entry, a preface in three parts: 2 vignettes and a little jesuitical context:

Vignette #1: 
My wife and I are members of "Koko's Kittens" -- geeks who have been on BOTH of Jonathan Coulton's jococruisecrazy. Last year, we skipped out on the 9th birthday of our eldest to go hang with internet musicians and comedians. I highly recommend this. This year, we took the Daughter Prime (now 10yo) and the Undivided Middle (7yo) with us. A good time was had by all. But I digress to this happy time to share a tough conversation that we had three days into the cruise. 

Prime and Undivided Middle with Jonathan Coulton
After 2 nights of concerts, I glanced over to watch the 7yo working her way through Mario 3D and the eldest on her phone playing a word game. My first thought was that the girls were not even listening to one of the musicians who they LOVED! Then i realized that they were both mouthing the words while playing. They were listening but not paying attention (parents will be nodding in recognition of this behavior).  {PAUSE}

Vignette #2
Tweetdeck: Infowhelm writ large
Each year, I have the pleasure of meeting, connecting with, teaching, and - in many cases - learning from amazing student at Brebeuf Jesuit. One of these students, @kcklippel, and I were having an internet conversation through twitter one relatively low-key afternoon about a year after he had graduated. About an hour into the conversation, this tweet came across the deck: 

"Oh, sh**. just blew off my class talking to you." 
"You skipped class?!?"
"No, I'm here. I just wasn't paying attention"

A Few Jesuit Lessons
  • The Jesuits task the teachers and administrators who work in their schools to give students the ability to develop the "counter cultural response". The basic idea is that the culture-at-large has got some things wrong. Thus, instead of limiting ourselves to math, science, writing, core curriculum, logical thinking, and 21st century skills (WHEW), we also try to equip our students with the critical eye to examine their culture and their actions within it and analyze whether they are making the best decisions or just the culturally easy ones ("best" in Jesuit-lingo is AMDG - doing things for the greater glory of God).
  • Another tenet of Jesuit education is that God, for whom we are doing things, is EVERYWHERE. The rocks, the rivers, other people, and even the NEW iPAD w/ retina display. One of the keys to the counter-cultural response is to be open to seeing God in places where we are not used to looking and responding accordingly.
On Stephen King's THE STAND, Conversational Opportunity and the Counter-Cultural Response
As  I was listening to the Audible version of the post-a-plague-alyptic novel yesterday, the passage above struck me as closely related to what I have been talking about regarding technology, social media, and digital natives for the last few years.

The initial reaction to personal technology in the classroom and schools in general was (and is) to keep it away.
  • Parents: worried that items would be lost, stolen, or damaged...
  • Administrators: reminded me that "Chaucer never used a laptop -- he didn't even have Facebook"...
  • Teachers: concerned about the loss of control "how we we keep them from twittering all day"
But when we keep technology out of the hands of students, we are not JUST denying them educational opportunities. We are not JUST keeping them from developing the skills they will be expected to have in college and beyond. We are not JUST putting our need for control ahead of them.

We are missing out on the opportunity to help them develop a necessary skill in the info-whelm, postPC world: The ability to choose to shut off the noise -- to disconnect.

My girls and my former student each experienced the same thing. The draw to the technology, whether it was the human connection at the other end or the exhilaration and relaxation found in a video game, was so intense, so consuming, that they were unable to avoid its siren buzz-beep-whir-ding. Thus, they missed out on a lecture that may have contained some perfect insight. They missed out on those unique never-to-be-repeated moments that only happen during live shows. They missed out, in some small way, on the opportunity to discover a God-moment.

I see this a lot in adults as well. Watch the next meeting with more than ten people. Observe the number of them who zone out of the conversation to answer email or surf the web. Watch the jump as they reach for a phone that is on vibrate for a reason but still has to be checked, "just in case". Then notice the tired look in the eyes at the end of a day that was constantly plugged in and connected. "The more goodies you have, the less the battery can charge"

BUT... (And if you made it this far, you need to stay for the end)

The answer is NOT to take away technology, it is to give it to them!

Students learn by doing, the same way that adults do. 

If we never give our children technology, we never get to have the conversation with them about putting the technology away to experience life as it happens before your eyes.

If our students are not confronted with and tempted by the technology in their pockets and their bags, then they will not have the resistance to put it away when it is not appropriate. And we will have raised another generation of meeting-zombies and phone-check junkies to replace the digital immigrants that came before.

In our school, the phrase that we have been using is that student need to develop the ability to
"be present in the moment". 

There are times when your presence is taking notes from a teacher, working on a problem, or listening to a friend. There are times when the moment allows for a quick glance at the twitter feed. Or that 3-coin attempt on DRAW SOMETHING.

Part of our responsibility in the task of developing Digital Citizens out of Digital Natives is providing the opportunity for Experience and the follow-up Reflections on which moment is which. This is not something that can be taught on a fill-in-the-blank test, but it might HAVE to happen in the classrooms, the playing fields, and the homes. 

Knowing when to disconnect is a vital skill.
And our batteries, ourselves, may depend on it.