Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

In his recent Huffington Post article, Don Tapscott (Author of Growing Up Digital which defined the Net Generation and the sequel, Grown Up Digital) lashes out at The New York Times for their recent portrayal of teens in “Growing Up Digital” another in their litany of pieces about today’s generation being more inept because they spend so much time immersed in digital technology. Tapscott’s on-the-mark post conveys my sentiments on the topic exactly. In the lengthy for HuffPo article he shares these nuggets:

Net Geners are better at switching attention and multitasking
When I look at my own children, their friends, and legions of other Net Geners, this is what I see: They're faster than I am at switching tasks, and better than I am at blocking out background noise. They can work effectively with music playing and news coming in from Facebook. They can keep up their social networks while they concentrate on work; they seem to need this to feel comfortable. I think they've learned to live in a world where they're bombarded with information, so that they can block out the TV or other distractions while they focus on the task at hand.

Kids don’t really have ADD, they’re just bored
So why do some Net Geners seem to have attention deficit disorder in class? Isn't it possible that the answer is because they're bored -- both with the slow pace and with the content of the lecture? Researcher Marc Prensky thinks so. "Their attention spans are not short for games, for example, or for music, or rollerblading, or for spending time on the Internet, or anything else that actually interests them," he writes. "It isn't that they can't pay attention, they just choose not to."

Prioritizing passion over homework is alright
The Times piece ends with the story of Vishal, who after a long Sunday on his computer is finally getting to his homework at 11pm. But we learn that Vishal's time online was in fact editing his new film. Vishal is a budding film director! Sure, he should get to his homework earlier. But the reader is left wondering how Vishal's passion for his craft, and his laser-like focus on editing over a 12-hour period is somehow evidence that he has lost his intellect or his attention span.

His conclusion...
The evidence suggests that many young people today are using technology to become smarter and more capable than their parents ever could be; and, like Vishal, to accomplish important, perhaps great things. Rather than kids losing their attention spans there is a stronger case to be made that growing up digital is equipping today's youth with the mental skills, such as scanning and quick mental switching, that they'll need to deal with today's overflow of information. The superior performance for many of them, as evidence by university graduation rates show they know when they have to focus, just as the most intelligent members of my generation did. They may think and process information in a different way than most boomers do, but that doesn't stop them from coming up with brilliant insights, new models of doing business, new ways of collaborating; or, for that matter, creating a carefully edited film as a teenager.

For the full article visit New York Times Cover Story on "Growing Up Digital" Misses the Mark


  1. "Our system of public education-our curricula, teaching methods, and the tests we require students to take- were created in a different century for the needs of another era. They are hopelessly outdated". With too many school leaders creating, maintaining and cherishing anti-intellectual and emotionally toxic cultures that promote relentless pursuit of the highest level of ignorance in all areas, including innovation, it is no wonder that "our schools haven’t changed; the world has. And so our schools are not failing. Rather they are OBSOLETE"

  2. Nice counterpoint... I felt the NYT article made some interesting points, but as you note, it failed to balance the idea that the type skills needed moving forward are different than in the past....

    Was I the only one that saw irony in the fact that Latin was the class that was losing students due to "technology"?

  3. @Anonymous, well said!
    @Mr Graden, you were not :-)

  4. I teach 7th grade students in a classroom that allows them to use tech tools as they explore the themes and topics in our Language Arts class. I have to disagree with the idea that students are good at multi-tasking or switching between tasks. These students are actually a lot like our schools... they do things a mile wide and an inch deep. They are not good at critical thinking and are only marginally skilled at several things, never mastering one thing.

    It's frustrating to try meeting the students on what everyone says is the "home turf" of "digital natives," only to find out that the "natives" don't know how to navigate their own country. I think that's wonderful that Vishal spent time creating a movie instead of doing homework, and I'm glad he used his time in a meaningful way. The vast majority of the students I teach do not use their online time in a meaningful way, pursuing something they are passionate about. I wish they did, but most admit that they just waste time online instead of doing anything worthwhile. I would love to believe that these students are just wired differently and are finding alternative ways to learn, but that's not what I have seen or have been told by my own students for the last 3-4 years.

  5. @J. Reid, you hit on the topic of another post I'm longing to have time to prioritize and write. I believe you are finding this to be an issue because schools are failing to do what I think is their most important task beyond the basics of supporting kids in readin, ritin, and rithmetic. That is to help students find their passions, talents, and interests. Tapscott hits the nail on the head when he laments the fact that school never tapped into or helped Vishal develop his film making skills. I see the same with my boyfriends kids. They both have special talents that can take them far, but school has it's own agenda and doesn't bother noticing.

    The one-size-fits-all experience that bring students through 12 years of classes, most of which they never even signed up for, is missing the mark. Like many of today's students, in my own primary and secondary education experience it was rare that I was able to do anything of interest. one bothered to even ask or help me find something I might be interested in.

    As long as schools keep students moving through the assembly line, I think you're right. Technology is just another tool in the mix. However, when empowered to find and develop their passions, talents, interests, in their preferred learning style, we'd see a big difference in how able students are to stay on task, focus and go deep into the material...just as Vishal does when making his movies.

  6. @J. Reid, One more crazy thought to throw out there. Knowing what we know about the need of middle schoolers to socialize, what if we stopped making them sit in traditional schools and instead allowed them much more time to socialize as they love to do. What if we had a decent percentage of time every week where they could choose that as there subject? What if we took it a step further and told them that if they wanted they could group themselves by areas of interest that they chose? Perhaps if we give adolescence more time to do what they do best, they'd give adults more attention when it came to learning...especially if they had some say about what it was they were learning.

  7. J. Reid, you illustrate a very important point that the job of teachers in the future will have to be redefined. Teachers must become facilitators of the learning process instead of serving as information delivery system. Without an experienced adult who has the knowledge of human psychology and pedagogy, the knowledge which the youngsters don't yet have, we will not be able to avoid the "mile wide and inch deep" problem. The natives do need help navigating their own country which bring us back to the issue of leadership. No clear vision, no navigation, no results (besides boredom and failure)and no change to the status quo.

  8. I agree with what you said about students being misdiagnosed with ADHD. For example, I have two gifted children who tend to become disruptive in class when they have completed their assignment. They do not have any attention problems, but do become bored when they do not have anything to do. It is evident that they behave better when they are in front of the computer or any other technological device. However, I do feel that technology is effective with its limits and guidelines. I believe that at times, it can be a distraction as most children do not have the ability to multitask as indicated above. In short, it is imperative to incorporate technology into the classroom, as long as its use is productive.

  9. kids today are not better at multitasking whether we think they are or not. people are not good at multitasking even when they say they're good at it. there is research to support what i am saying. for example:


    Indeed, last summer Nass and two colleagues published a study that found that self-described multitaskers performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks. Nass says he was surprised at the result: He had expected the multitaskers to perform better on at least some elements of the test. But no. The study was yet another piece of evidence for the unwisdom of multitasking.
    the article goes on to discuss the fact that even having students taking notes while you're talking is distracting. in other words, if you want students listening when you talk then give them notes and have them put everything else away. i think this is entirely accurate, fwiw.

  10. @sean lancaster, the problem with the studies like those you cite is that true multitasking doesn't involve someone else controlling the multitasking. It is induced by the individual. I agree anyone that was doing someone else's tasks interrupted by someone else's stimuli would not do well in multitasking. The thing all these studies are missing is that they are not observing their subjects working on their self-directed/selected everyday tasks.

    We are all created differently and think and learn differently. For me, without a variety of multiple stimuli, I can not focus as well. I spent a large portion of my singularly-tasked time in school so bored I usually found myself asleep. I need to have many tools at my disposal simultaneously and I switch between them all with ease and excitement. I am variety focused using a variety of tools. At the end of the day or week this process enables me to generate an enormous amount of end-products from workshops I develop to articles and blog posts that I write, to contributions to my book as well as communicating, collaborating and connecting to my PLN through Twitter, Facebook, Texting, BBM voice, and more. This is how I work effectively and and results from an artificial study don't change that for me or the many others who need this kind of stimulation to work most effectively.

  11. i get that you want to believe your anecdotal evidence, but until research proves your point i'll go with the scholarly stuff for now. there is evidence that people doing their own multitasking are bad at it as well (and many people claim to be very good at multitasking). for example:


    Based on their research, a team of NHTSA workers estimated that cell phone use by drivers caused 955 fatalities and about 240,000 accidents in 2002. Other research reinforces the NHTSA's findings: motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and they are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.

    my argument is not that people cannot multitask; clearly they can (e.g., not everyone crashes when they talk on a cell phone). i am just noting that people who do multitask end up doing each task lesser than they would have if they focused solely on a single task. they'll still accomplish each task, etc. when they multitask so that isn't what i dispute. and, until research shows kids multitasking their own way and then performing the same tasks individually i'll stick with the scholarly research on the table right now.

    i don't disagree that kids can get bored at school. i am sure it happens often. i just don't think it's because they aren't allowed to multitask. you and many kids receive poor instruction and that's unfortunate and we need to do a better job preparing teachers. however, no research notes that good instruction equals allowing kids to multitask on the lesson objectives. and even if teachers created multitasked lessons, that would be manufactured, which you already said is a flawed way to do it.

  12. @sean, we are in agreement that when multi-tasking can end in death, it is not a good option. Whenever a life is on the line, we should be singularly focused on the task at hand. I also am not saying, mulit-tasking is the prescription to cure boredom and irrelevance that most of us found in school. (Sidenote at a recent ed conference the keynote asked the audience to describe their school experience in one word and in unison the 1500-person audience responded BORING.)

    What I am saying is that we need to stop dictating how individuals learn best and actually respect the individual for how they feel they learn best. Suggesting effective alternatives is great and may be helpful, but let’s not always abide by the holy grail of research. Research always has an angle, usually has a funder, despite controls, is often biased, and for any study there is often an equal and opposite study that can be done if someone has the financial wherewithal to fund it. Renowned educational researcher Robert Marzano was funded by an Interactive Whiteboard company and they designed a study that said IWBs improve student achievement (big shocker!). When looking , behind the research, one would find the same results could have been accomplished without an IWB. Furthermore, anyone willing to could pay Marzano to find different results with a study designed to show different results. So, throw all the research at me that you want, but if you don’t let students learn in a way that they feel is best for them, is working for them, makes them feel successful and hopefully even joyous, then what’s the point?

    Experts can certainly guide students in the pursuit of passions, interests and talent development, but, we are all unique and learn differently. In this No Child Left Behind, research-driven climate that often stifles innovation, sometimes we need to put down the study and look at the individuals in front of us. If a student loves skateboarding and wants to research the ten best tricks for skateboards, for one student that may mean going to a silent library. Looking in the card catalogue, selecting a couple dusty books, and a few magazines, then pulling out index cards one by one writing down notes and citations. For another student what might work best is listening to music, searching YouTube skating videos, chatting on Skater’s cafe with friends about how they do their tricks, creating a Twitter Poll using the #skateboard hashtag to ask what others favorite tricks are, hopping on her favorite skateboarding fan page on Facebook and placing a post on the wall asking for contributors to an article on the topic and sharing a link in all these places to the Google doc where she will lead others to collaboratively write the piece. All this with a Diigo toolbar to bookmark the various bookmarks. This student is doing several things simultaneously with dozens of open tabs/windows and in the end has made incredible connections and has an article to share with a community who cares online, and to bring with her to the local skateboard park where she takes pictures and videos of her friends doing these tricks. That student is working the way that works for her and using tools that many educators may not even understand.

    Educators need to relinquish some control and set students free to learn, love, and explore their passions in the environments they enjoy with the tools they love, in their own way. Students should be empowered to do this even if a research study says they’re doing it wrong, because, for that student, despite the gray-haired PhD who may never have BBMed, IMed, doesn’t own an iPod, has never heard of Diigo, and doesn’t know a Tweet from a chirp says it shouldn't be so, because for her (or him) is.

  13. schools do need to change the way they test! We should no longer be worried if our students can memorize and passed standardized testing, but what are they going to do with this information once they pass the tests. Do they know how to incorporate and use their knowledge in the real world. We as teachers need to make sure we are not just focusing on the facts they need to know how they can use the technology that surrounds them for their benefit.

  14. I agree the teachers need to be redefined. They need to learn technology like the back of their hands and help the students of today learn to incorporate technology.