Monday, January 25, 2016


One of the cardinal sins of ineffective teaching? Too much information. Too much too fast with too little time to absorb, process, connect. 41 years of teaching under my belt and I’m still committing it!

Some of it comes from sheer excitement of sharing what you know and love, but still, you need to notice when the kids’ eyes glaze over. Arnold Schoenberg once said that the most important tool for a composer is an eraser and that holds true for planning classes as well. Narrow down, focus so that the students can later expand and connect.

So amidst a thousand worries I’ve had about the influx of i-Pads into schools, the way in which the device is constructed to be a technology of constant distractions is on my mind. The technologies we use are not a neutral tool, they come to define what we consider good teaching, good learning, good knowledge. They not only affect our intelligence and our absorption of knowledge, they also affect the way we think about intelligence, the way we think about transmitting knowledge. As a teacher trainer, I’m trying to help people avoid the pitfalls of TMI and there’s a whole arsenal of machines working against me.

I just finished an excellent book by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and it’s not good news. Nothing surprising for someone like me who has been thinking and talking about this stuff for some thirty years at least. But very well put together and always using the “we” voice—no evil bad guys trying to control our brains for nefarious ends, just us vulnerable humans following our fascination with machines and mathematical thinking and jumping into the electronic pool with both feet without testing, or even wondering about, the quality of the water. Or which part of is will swim and which will sink.

Out of many points, let’s take a moment with the TMI one. The Internet (mostly synonymous with “the computer” these days) is a technology of distraction. While we could technically sit for an hour or more comparing scholarly interpretations of James Joyce’s Ulysses, we won’t. Not only because all the links and hypertext will steer us from the main road and keep us leaving the trail for side paths (whether they’re relevant or not), not only because ads may pop up or a ding inform us of an e-mail or we suddenly remembered we forgot to post on Facebook that we’re studying James Joyce’s Ulysses or breaking news that Trump made a statement that was actually based on a tangible fact (“I am not in the least bit qualified to do this job!”). All this is hard enough, the constant allure of the Sirens and then some actual photos of them in their sexy skimpy outfits, but there’s more. It’s that our very notion of reading and research and thinking has been redefined by the technologies we use and left us in the shallow end of the pool.

Ever been in a classroom during silent reading time? Have you felt the energy in the room, the brain waves of children and adults wholly absorbed with their imaginations turned wholly on, the sense that each was on a private journey that was forming their sense of self, their sense of longing, their sense of belonging? Have you felt the shift when the bell rings and they shake themselves from one form of awakeness to another?

Now compare it to the same people in the same room surfing through their i-Pads or mobile phones, going from one sound-byte to the next, one sensation to the next, one quick hit of information or entertainment that leads nowhere else and comes from nowhere else (that they’re aware of). There’s TMI—too much information, too much interruption, too much idiocy. Can you feel the difference between deep silent reading and shallow Internet surfing?

After an initial and failed flirtation with being a Luddite, I finally came to a convincing stance that exactly no one (except people like Nicholas Carr) is interested in hearing:

“The right tool for the right job at the right time for the right amount of time at the right cost with the right people at the right level of awareness of what it adds to us and what it subtracts. “

We all know that the Internet can be a window into new worlds, something that opens us wider and connects us (even if only through Facebook) further, but we’re less willing to look at what it’s taking away—things like deep reading, deep thinking, prolonged focus, attention to the world while we’re walking, connection to the people next to us (who aren’t looking at their phone) and more. We now have technology detox camps (expensive! and we just used to call them “camp”) and aps that turn off our devices (ironic!).

But a good read through a thought-provoking book is a good idea also. Check it out. And don’t wait for the Youtube graphic summary.

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