Digital Distractions not Novel, Remember Ahab?

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I feel like saying “what she said” to this short piece from the NYTimes Magazine by Virginia Heffernan. Her point is that there is nothing new about being so into one idea, game, book, or anything, that you igore everything else. Think Ahab’s unhealthy obsession with Moby Dick, or revisit Tom Sawyer who fidgets in church, but finds the world a wonder of interesting attractions. The trouble with technology and teaching isn’t whether computers are changing the children’s brains, it is that our schools are changing EXPLICIT curriculum, but are blind and ignore the IMPLICIT or hidden curriculum that comes with the way our school systems organize most education today.

The problem  is *not* technology and some mysterious brain wave patterns and an illusive attention “span” norm. The problem is whether schools are designed to promote individual learning or whether they are designed for other purposes, useful in the 19th and 20th century, but increasingly dysfunctional in an Information Age.

The problem is with the underlying and conflicting assumptions about why we send anyone to school, to begin with.

Elizabeth Vallance’s work on the origins of universal public education, or the “hidden curriculum,”  reveal the implicit purpose of educational organization that frame how the explicit curriculum we teach is delivered.  Agrarian workers  lives didn’t revolve around “clock time” but around the rhythms of nature (sunrise, sunset, etc.) Immigrants from agrarian cultures who were pouring into the US when our current universal education system was being created, needed to be schooled in more than ABCs in order to be fit to work in factories. The factories used artificial light and for the first time, work schedules could be set without regard to natural sunrise and sunset. Vallance’s work examines the organization and arrangement of schools that is non-curricular, but just as influential on the content of the classroom, where silence, instead of chatter, allowed workers to hear instructions from a foreman or boss, and

… good behavior, such as passivity, punctuality, and respect for authority, …became implicit, if not hidden, by the early twentieth century because they were seen to be working and could be taken for granted as natural and normal. Students new to U.S. public schools, such as recent immigrants, were expected to adapt and fit in, for example, by looking at the teacher when spoken to, learning and using standard English, waiting (to speak, for the teacher’s attention, for permission to use the toilet), and working hard.

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Virginia Heffernan looks at attention and how individuals choose to “spend” or allocate their attention from the point of view of the individual, not the point of view of established authority e.g. school administrators whose interests include the explicit curriculum taught but also the implicit aspects of school “management.”

Maybe my own brain is faltering in a Web wasteland, but I don’t get it. Whether the Web is making us smarter or dumber, isn’t there something just unconvincing about the idea that an occult “span” in the brain makes certain cultural objects more compelling than others? So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of “The Sun Also Rises”; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played. The actions of these children may dismay or please adults, but anyone who has ever been bored by one practice and absorbed by another can explain the kids’ choices more persuasively than does the dominant model, which ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.

I remember my mother yelling at me because I was reading a book and thus not hearing her calling me. I was embarrassed many a time in school when I was transported to another place through a novel I was reading when the teacher would call on me about some matter I was supposed to be giving my attention to. I’ve felt the same way when I am at my computer, but also, when I’ve been daydreaming about something that was interesting to me. Haven’t you? This is what is praised and prized in Flow: The Psychology of Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you are reading this, I wager you know what “flow” feels like. You know perfectly well, that attention span is related to interest. There is no denying we all need to be taught to control our attention because we exist in tension between individual satisfaction and responsibility to others, but that should be a matter of explicit teaching, not implicit control. We should be choosing to pay attention or not as responsible, autonomous individuals, not having our behavior shaped by experts who want to look into our brain waves.

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