Monday, June 11, 2012

EDUCATION INTERRUPTUS; Houston, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
8 June 2012

Back in the day, it was possible to go to a movie theater and watch the whole movie right through, without having unrelated matter introduced at various times. Now, with 21st Century presentation customs, a movie on television will be broken into a number of times for five or six advertisements for widely unrelated products and services.

This sort of fragmentation is not only present in education, but welcomed as a brave new way of motivating students and trying to retain their attention. A number of experts, seeing the popularity of video games, with their changes in level and constant supply of “rewards,” recommend that the curricula we offer students should benefit from constant interruptions as well. With Milton’s “On His Blindness”—

"When I consider how my light is spent    
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,    
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless...."

Deep Reading practice suggests that students should often break into their own reading at some point to “interrogate” the material, asking questions about the relationship of text to text, text to world, text to self, and the like. So, for instance, in starting to read Milton’s sonnet, they might pause to inquire, “Do you know anyone who is seeing-impaired?” “Is there a connection in the text between ‘light’ and ‘dark?’” “How do you feel about the services for the blind in your community?”

"...Though my Soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, least he returning chide, Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd, I fondly ask?"

Here again it would be possible to ask “Have you ever been chided for something?” “How did that change your feelings at the time?” “What sort of community service have you been involved in lately?” “What have you made that you feel most proud of?” “Is there a God?” These interruptions are recommended to help retain the students’ attention and to support their motivation to continue reading, which, it appears, John Milton’s sonnet could no longer do without such modern pedagogical aids.

Similarly, other academic matters may be modernized by introducing frequent scores, levels of difficulty, and, of course, extensive visual and auditory stimulation. Modern students who have watched hundreds of thousands of hours of chopped-up television shows, and played hundreds of thousands of hours of fragmented video games  just cannot be expected to pay attention for any extended periods to any “text” or academic task, without the sort of interruptions on which they have become dependent. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1

"...It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved for the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force..."

Deep Reading here might lead the student down the “labyrinthine ways” of questions about the use of force in society or the frequency of accidents on our highways?

Some might argue that this history of shattered attention has led to a kind of addiction to interruption which it should be education’s mission to help students overcome. They would point to the research that shows that multitasking means each task will receive less attention and be done less well, and argue that students, instead of being encouraged (required) to break into their own attention with interrogatories, should be shown ways to sustain a focus on the academic works before them.

However, those who believe that nothing in what civilization has to offer can hold the attention of students today without the regular intrusion of pedagogical gimmicks and process techniques to jolt them with scores, questions, rewards, counts of the # of “reading minutes” and the like, might simply say that fragmented attention is not only a good thing, but it must be rewarded so that students will not drop out of school and sit slumped at home watching various media and playing digital games.

The Kaiser Foundation recently found that the average young person in the United States now spends about 53 hours a week with various electronic entertainment activities, so many educators (and hardware and software sales professionals) have come to the conclusion that unless we bring interrupted education into the newly digital 21st Century classroom, we will not have adapted successfully to the scattered brains of our young people today.

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