The flickering of the American mind
Diana Senechal on problems of distraction in education
“Our newer technologies do not cause our distraction, but they may encourage and exacerbate it. Postman warned that ‘in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.’ Our Internet may contain the idea of luring us away from wherever we are and whatever we are doing: animated advertisements crawling across the screen, a popup survey, a registration request, links that promise to fill the gaps in the blogs we read. There is very little on the Internet that encourages us to stay put and read something several times. Instead, we are pulled on to the next thing, to readers’ brief comments on it, to comments on the comments, and to links from the comments to something else. . . .
“When we fail repeatedly to give our full attention to something that matters, we eventually conclude that it doesn’t matter all that much. We may decide that it is really the blogs, tweets, and texts that count — after all, they are reaching people and making it out into the wide world. . . .
“Distraction results in a scattering of intentions; to end distraction, one must gather oneself in some way; one must be willing to give something priority for a while. That is not a cure, of course; one does not overcome distraction just by granting importance to something. But this granting of importance is a start. . . .
“It seems obvious that schools should help students learn to read and work thoughtfully, to develop a life of the mind. Instead, there is a growing emphasis on visible activity and productivity. What isn’t visible or tangible seems threatening, because it could be anything or nothing. How do we know that students are learning if we can’t see signs of it here and now? How do we know that the class has accomplished anything if there isn’t a product to put on the wall? . . .
“Educators across the ideological and pedagogical spectrum agree that students should be engaged in their learning. But what does engagement mean? Does it mean that students take their studies seriously and work toward better understanding and mastery? Or does it mean that students show certain external behaviors — such as sitting up, looking up, taking notes, participating in groups, and never being idle? The internal and external forms of engagement are not necessarily at odds with each other. But when the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the external, students have no letup. They must show activity and results whether they have meaning or not. They must respond instantly to directions and stay on the mark at all times. Dreaminess and lingering questions have no place.
“To a great extent, American schools encourage students to rely on external stimuli and external results. The schools themselves, especially struggling schools, are in constant turmoil, so it is difficult to be still with anything. Year after year, they change their curricula, schedules, classroom setups, paperwork, pedagogical approaches, administrative structures, and more. . . .
“Why is it so difficult to tackle distraction in schools? Does it have some kind of appeal for the adults as well as the children? Or is it just so daunting that we give into it? One possibility . . . is that distraction masquerades as focus. When children are kept active with one fast-paced project after another, they don’t have a chance to fall out of line. Nor do they have to do anything particularly difficult. It looks as though the class is functioning well; administrators observing the class take note of the teacher’s control and the students’ participation. When the tests are not particularly challenging, the test scores, too, may indicate success. Many argue that the ends justify the means: if test scores are going up and discipline is good, the method must be working. But we must ask in what sense is it working.
“A more disturbing possibility is that we have paid too much homage to quick, visible results, no matter what their underlying value. We have become what Martin Buber described in 1923 as the ‘capricious man,’ who ‘only knows the feverish world out there and his feverish desire to use it.’”
— from Diana Senechal, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012)