Monday, May 25, 2009

The limits of technology - thinking about two recent articles

Reviews of two recent articles...

I came across Sam Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction", which appeared in New York Magazine (May 17, 2009) via the main source of my education news, the Diigo in Education group email updates. The article is quite funny. Anderson considers the "attention crisis": "the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural attention." The source of the many distractions are new technologies; and the distractions are leading us into a "dark age": "Adopting the Internet as the hub of our work, play, and commerce." Anderson writes, "has been the intellectual equivalent of adopting corn syrup as the center of our national diet, and we’ve all become mentally obese."

The "doomsayers" are silly, he argues, because (a) every technological advance has had its crop of doomsayers [I'm not sure why that makes it silly, only consistent - jd] and (b) "the virtual horse has already left the digital barn", so the question is not how to stem the tide of inattentive multitasking, but how to deal with it, if at all.

New technologies lead us to "continuous partial attention" (Anderson is quoting "tech theorist" Linda Stone) -- we are never quite focused on anything, flitting from task to task, and we are less capable for it. Two quotes from his article: "People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana," and "If Einstein were alive today, [David Meyer -- a leading cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan] says, he’d probably be forced to multitask so relentlessly in the Swiss patent office that he’d never get a chance to work out the theory of relativity."

As something of an aside, Meyer's quote raises an aspect of distraction that Anderson does not address. Distractions are forced onto the modern worker (especially those who process information) as part of the intensification of work. This is classic Marxist economic theory -- the imperative to maximize profit requires either the extension of the work day or the intensification of the work process, to squeeze more value out of the worker in a given slice of time. As in "forced to multitask so relentlessly". As Anderson does note, such task-switching is death to deep creativity, which reinforces the idea that most "information workers" are not there to add value as creative thinkers, but are simply meatbots routing information and making quick decisions too complex (yet) to be done by a machine. So an important source of distraction is not technology per se, but the conditions under which technology is deployed. While public school teachers are putatively in the not-for-profit sector of the economy, they face the same productivity mandate. It bleeds in from the privatized education sector and education directives emanating from the world economy. So teachers are constantly pulled from one thing to another in an attempt to produce more in the same or less amount of time.

Anderson reviews one possible solution to "the attention problem": deliberately focusing attention or meditation. He also explores medical solutions -- neuroenhancers like Adderall, intended as an ADHD treatment, which tends to "focus the mind" ("can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention"); and "lifehacking", an endless quest for organizing one's life (but, "One of the weaknesses of lifehacking as a weapon in the war against distraction, [Merlin Mann, one of the "stars" of the lifehacking movement] admits, is that it tends to become extremely distracting").

Anderson then moves from possible antidotes to distraction to suggest that we should embrace the "poverty of attention". After all, an important part of creativity is allowing the mind to float so that it can "mark the before unapprehended relations of things" (as Shelley described metaphor). He remarks on the perhaps quintessential distraction in literature of Marcel Proust and his madeleine. A super-focused person would not allow him or herself to be transported by a cookie. As Anderson notes, people who take Adderall also have the sensation of losing their creativity (quoting Slate writer Joshua Foer, "I had a nagging suspicion that I was thinking with blinders on"). The ability to be distracted is a gift, part of our human makeup, that helps us in many ways.

So new technologies have created a world of constant interruption, but distraction is good. The constant stream of distractions allowed by email, text messages, phone calls, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc. maybe are good things? As Anderson concludes,

There’s been lots of hand-wringing about all the skills they might lack, mainly the ability to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end, but surely they can already do things their elders can’t—like conduct 34 conversations simultaneously across six different media, or pay attention to switching between attentional targets in a way that’s been considered impossible... Kids growing up now might have an associative genius we don’t—a sense of the way ten projects all dovetail into something totally new. They might be able to engage in seeming contradictions: mindful web-surfing, mindful Twittering. Maybe, in flights of irresponsible responsibility, they’ll even manage to attain the paradoxical, Zenlike state of focused distraction.

There are a lot of "mights" in those final sentences. "Might and maybe", but (maybe) or (probably) teachers have a role to play here in helping make that leap from attention-switching or flitting to connection-making and solution-finding.

As any teacher will tell you, attention, engagement, focus, etc. are major issues in the classroom. Electronic media are a major part of students' lives; Anderson writes that "One recent study found that American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day focused on the electronic world, which strikes me as a little low." One of the most striking things to me, from this past school year, has been the degree to which otherwise rowdy students will focus on a computer screen, whether it be watching a BrainPOP video or floating around the virtual science investigation of River City or assembling a beat with GarageBand.

One is tempted to declare victory and leave it at that. But what are the kids learning? As I am reminded from different directions, including by our advisors from CUIP (the expanded acronym is too long to write out, check the link for more) or Todd Oppenheimer's book, The Flickering Mind, or any decent pedagogy course, we want the students to become deeper thinkers (or move higher up Bloom's taxonomy). The verbs that go along with Bloom's highest level (I am looking at "Quick Flip Questions for the Revised Bloom's Taxonomy" from Edupress, 2001) include "adapt", "build", "create", "elaborate", "imagine", "predict", and so on. My suspicion, or perhaps, my fear, is that the way we use technology (or to 'fess up, the way I have helped my teachers use technology this year) has not led to these "higher-order thinking skills" ("HOTS" in ed lingo, a field which is as fond of acronyms as the high tech field). To go further, I suspect that these skills are not attainable via technology.

Goethean science provides a useful structure for sorting out and organizing the conflicting actions of focus and "distraction". Goethe was also a scientist, and approached scientific investigation in a distinctive, rather poetic, way. Inasmuch as it can be described as a "method", it is consists of two main phases. The first phase is the focused examination of the object under investigation, including both careful observation as well as learning what past researchers have observed. The second phase is the recreation of the phenomenon in the imagination, reflecting or meditating on the object. These two phases succeed each other iteratively, each feeding the other, towards new questions and further and deeper understanding of the phenomenon. (This method is described and explored in the writings of Craig Holdrege at the Nature Institute). The concentrated focus is essential for apprehending the phenomenon; while the recreation of the object in the imagination opens the mind to a kind of "distraction" or wandering that can yield new insights, connections, and meaning, of developing a deep sensitivity and knowledge of the phenomenon. Both phases are necessary, and reinforce each other.

In this process, technology can take one only so far. The role of the imagination in the process of knowing cannot be done with technology. It is uniquely done in the mind. Technology might help in the focused observation phase (microscopes, data collection and statistical analysis, literature review) and in the reporting of results (which granted is an opportunity for additional reflection), the meaningful higher order thinking skills are cultivated away from computers, during reflection time. It might happen during walks or conversations or staring out the window or sitting with one's eyes closed, thinking about the phenomenon.

Attention-flitting has some benefits somewhere along the timeline of investigation, but for Anderson's mights and maybes to come into being, it needs to be combined with other skills and attitudes like focus and reflection. Reflection allows for a kind of gentle distraction, not the jangle of electronica. Here comes into play the role of a teacher, to cultivate the entire range of mental activities that go into deep understanding.

Another recent article also raised questions for me about the role of technology in education. Sunday's (May 24, 2009) New York Times Magazine includes an article by Matthew Crawford, "The Case for Working With Your Hands", which discusses something I have been thinking about vis-a-vis the kids at my school. I don't think the students at my school get nearly enough experience working with materials, with stuff. Partly this is a function of economics, what they are exposed to at home, opportunities, what their families can afford, etc. Partly this is a function of the economy at large, of globalization, or capitalism in the age of electronics. People are more likely to buy things instead of make them, further constraining the opportunities to work with matter. Neighborhood opportunities may be constrained, because of social marginalization. Partly it is a function of other, related social conditions. I am thinking about Richard Louv's "nature deficit disorder", and the lack of opportunities for kids to interact with nature. The streets can be dangerous, so better to stay inside. Outside of the very important opportunities in once-a-week art class, and maybe occasional hands-on science lessons, students do not have a lot of opportunity to work with stuff, to interact with matter.

Crawford's article reminds us that interacting with matter -- wood, stone, fabric, dirt, flowers, clay, paint, etc. directly is an important, direct source of knowledge. In our mediated world, "confrontations with material reality have become exotically unfamiliar." We have become world-stupid. I am reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story related by a former co-worker who had returned from a photo safari in East Africa. On a previous outing, a tourist was mauled by a lion after he insisted on getting out of the Range Rover to photograph the animal close-up. I assume that the tourist had previously encountered lions on television, with no mishaps. Nothing in his experience led him to think there was any danger in getting out of the car.

This indicates another weakness of technology's typical role in the classroom. Technology is often used to give students exposure to the world, by reading articles or watching video. But these are mediated experiences, and have lost most of the richness of direct contact. (Which is not to say mediated experiences are not useful, just that they are not a proper substitute for the real thing.) We learn with our hands as well as our eyes and ears. You can't really understand how the world works without engaging with it directly.

Crawford brings up another dimension of engagement with the world -- how we engage with it. In describing the learning process of working with motorcycle engines, Crawford describes the process as a "conversation": "Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness." This echoes what Craig Holdrege has written about doing Goethean science. He describes scientific investigation as a conversation with phenomena, which also implies an ethical respect for the object of investigation. (See also this piece I wrote: "The Goethean Approach and Human Artifacts")

Again, there is a proper place for technology in the classroom, but the material interaction with keyboard and mouse cannot replace the important interactions with everything else.

I realize I am not saying anything new


1 comment:

Linda said...

This is such a thoughtful post. I believe that, for educators and for students, the key is to be familiar with and able to access whatever attention strategy best fits an activity (focus, CPA, etc.). Increasingly, I like the idea of 10 minutes of a breathing practice, three times during the School Day. A new book, PERFECT BREATHING, does a terrific job reviewing many breathing techniques and also covers the relationship between breathing, attention, emotion and cognition. Thank you for your thoughtful post.