Notes on Technology, Society and Education
Alternative Technology Education
For the past 3 years I have taken part in a sort of alternative education ‘experiment’ at 5 middle schools in a school district north of San Francisco. The premise of this experiment is that punishing students for failing subjects, for bad behavior in class and for truancy can only go so far. At some point, the school, teacher or parent has to come up with a solution as expelling middle school aged kids typically leads to drug use, over reliance on video games and lack of an incentive / skills for societal involvement. The solution created involves keeping kids at the school site nearest to their home, yet in an alternative classroom where a multiple subject teacher and teaching assistant work much more closely with each student than in a standard class. The ratio of student to teacher is 10 to 1 as opposed to 30 to 1; the focus is on academics as well as social and emotional learning; and project based learning and field trips are woven into the curriculum to inspire creative application of academic concepts.
During my time as educator of project based social and emotional learning, I have noticed one trend that is pretty much universal among the alt-ed students in these classrooms: their reliance on technology and overuse of smartphones, Youtube and video games. Regardless of socio-economics and race (as each school is situated in a different area that results in demographic shift), the trend I have noticed is near universal with these kids: ask them to do a simple multiplication and they can't answer without going to their phone calculator; ask a question about geography and they use Google maps; ask them to identify a definition and they ask Siri or Google. Initial attempts at removing technological distraction such as by putting phones away and keeping Chromebooks closed leads to blank stares, disinterest and a flare up of a suite of behavior management challenges.
One might observe that ‘of course’ these students act this way- they are, after all, the segment of our population that are failing or in danger of being expelled, and most likely they have some sort of learning disability or lack of support at home. While the latter is true in many cases, the former is mostly false as students in these alt-ed classes lack an IEP or ‘Individual Education Program' plan that is created when a student has a learning disability that may prevent them from thriving in school. The one thing these students DO have is a form of ADHD where keeping their attention for more than 15 minutes is near impossible.
In thinking about this I was reminded of an article I read back in 2008 that first cued me into the possible dangers of Internet connectivity: entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? it is a fascinating read even today and worth checking out. A quote from the piece explains, “[Internet media] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” This phrase exactly describes what I see happening with the hundreds of 11-14 year olds I have worked with the last 10+ years, and not just with the students in alternative education classrooms. Middle school students in public, private and alternative education contexts exhibit shorter attention spans than anytime in history*. This statement comes from current research, personal anecdotal evidence from my own experience and from numerous principles, teachers and guidance counselors I have worked with; seasoned educators that have been in the educational realm for multiple decades.
A simple way to put it is this: students in alternative education classes and many from general education would much rather surf on Youtube than actually go surfing. And maybe they have a point? Actual surfing involves getting to a beach at odd hours, trudging through coastal plain and sand, getting wet in cold water (at least in Northern California) and the occasional run in with sea urchin spikes in your foot. Youtube does the work for you, includes the dopamine rush and you can do it from anywhere. The problem with the above is that as research shows, in accessing information online we are actually changing the way our brain processes information, many times with dire results: decreased academic performance, a decrease in the ability to focus on tasks and a general apathy for education and possibly the world in general.
Current solutions exist on both the social and technological fronts: work done by Common Sense Media can help us educate our youth on trends in digital citizenship, tech workers at Google and Facebook (among others) have launched a Center for Humane Technology, and websites such as wiseteched.com offer targeted social behavior change platforms to educate ourselves on the dangers of overuse of technology while changing social norms and neural pathways. The goal is to enable awareness and an increase in the ability to give our attention in focused and meaningful ways.
I recently went on a field trip to the California Academy of Sciences with two of the alternative education classes mentioned above. Each student was given a scavenger hunt worksheet that asked them to go to specific areas in the museum and write down responses. One question asked the students to answer, “In the exhibit The Color of Life, what is the term for the bending of light?” Rather than move from his seat near the cafeteria, I watched a student pick up his iPhone, cracks spread throughout the screen, and ask Siri “What do you call light that bends?” I couldn't help but respect the fact he used the tool available to him.
*”There has been an 800% increase in the ADHD “epidemic” in the last 30 years. 6 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD (1 in 10 kids)” Glow Kids by Nicolas Kardaras
The Core of the Problem
"To get rid of garbage in the river don't clean up the garbage: go upstream and see who is throwing trash in the water.”
Having read countless articles and books on the detrimental effects screen technology has on the human psyche, I decided to take a break and begin to look at solutions. I’m not talking about ‘put down your phone’ or ‘turn off notifications’ solutions either: I’m talking upstream causations. This research led me to discover a not so well known text from the 1990’s entitled Community Building: Values for a Sustainable Future by Dr. Leonard A. Jason. Rather than go into my own account of what the book is about, here is the abstract for the book reprinted from the American Psychology Association’s PsychNet:
“The author describes a series of vulnerabilities that help account for many of the serious problems facing contemporary society in industrialized countries, including high crime rates; homelessness; alcohol, tobacco, and other drug addictions; and a pervasive sense of isolation and alienation.
These vulnerabilities are: aggressive tendencies in our genetic makeup; our separation from nature; loss of external moral and religious symbols and guideposts; and loss of connection with the land, crafts, and communities. These vulnerabilities predispose industrialized societies to unacceptable levels of individualism and a breakdown of the psychological sense of community.
The author explores anthropological, historical, philosophical, religious, and epistemological explanations for the decline in sense of community and the subsequent emphasis on individual goals as a source of meaning.”
The line in the abstract that strikes me the most is “unacceptable levels of individualism and a breakdown of the psychological sense of community.” For me, this represents the core of the technological problem: we are at a crossroads complete with the tools for never-ending sources of entertainment and information, yet now are faced with the overwhelming individual responsibility of knowing what to do with that information. Do we use it to empower ourselves to take action, or fall victim to the endless click bait that keeps us from understanding our role in the world? How do we re-create a sense of community in a society that is fragmented on so many levels? Socially constructed blockages exist based on socio-economic factors, gender, race, religion, political leaning, colors of bandanas, walls on borders, etc.
As Dr. Jason describes in his book, and other therapists and researchers have outlined in studies of resiliency and neuroscience, one answer to our perceived separation from one another lies deep within our genetic makeup and reptilian brain: we have evolved as a successful species by relying on our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reactions. When we take the time to create neural pathways based on empathy, connection and awareness, we can move beyond this ‘lower brain’ emotional response system and enter into the ‘higher’ brain of conscious and rational thought.
The key to understanding ‘why’ we default to our lower brain is simple: when we are not consciously creating resilient neural pathways that involve higher levels of thinking, we are easily ‘triggered’ by old emotional memories that default to neural pathways created during those traumas and triggers. Ways to re-create healthy neural pathways include meditation; practicing mindfulness and presence; physical activity and rest; in person conversations with people; interacting with those who have more developed brains than our own; learning to self-regulate and calm emotions like anger and fear; physical touch from loved ones; and developing personal skills for empathy, compassion and self-acceptance.
Upon looking deeper into the problem, the gravity of the situation becomes clear: rather than dealing with a “one off” addiction to screen technologies like smartphones and social media, the core of the issue goes much deeper into our brains and human psyche. We are social creatures that are in desperate need of meaningful and in person social connection. No wonder the promise of Internet connectivity is so glamorous yet also devastating: we crave connection with people, and the Internet and its various offerings entice us to believe we are only a click away. The current task therefore involves much more than putting our phones down: we must engage in meaningful in-person conversation, interact and connect with our community, and teach children to do the same.
Simon sinek breaks down generational disconnect
This is an older video but a good one recommended by a High School Senior. Simon Sinek looks at the Millennial generation's search for purpose and impact through 4 characteristics he says have 'failed' the generation: parenting strategies that promised success at every turn, overuse of highly addictive technology via smartphones and social media, impatience due to conditioning around immediate gratification, and the need to create a corporate environment of trust, innovation and connection. Enjoy!
THE SOCIO-TECHNOLOGICAL DIVIDE
“ What we really want is a natural life “
– Charlotte Joko Beck, Author of “Now Zen”
Since the advent of screens in our lives, starting with television and including personal computers, humanity has been on a steady climb of access to information and sharing of knowledge due to increased time with electronic screen devices. Starting in the mid 90’s and finally with the invention of the iPhone in 2007, it became possible to hold an Internet enabled device in the palm of our hands. This steady increase in access to information has allowed us to reach great heights in knowledge, communication and the ability to record and examine many facets of our lives. The view from these technological heights is profound! We can see where we came from, know exactly where we are now, and even forecast into the future.
Yet current evidence leads us to ask the question: have we reached a peak or plateau with this technological climb, where we now are faced with the unintended consequences of our infatuation with screens? Research shows a dramatic increase in anxiety, ADHD and depression rates with kids, and suicide rates are at their highest in 50 years. So called ‘social’ media connects us to many people, yet numerous studies show use of these platforms actually make us feel more socially isolated and depressed due to social comparison. Finally, whereas screens and technology can connect us more than ever before, we have somehow found ourselves encountering less physical interactions on a day by day basis, and as stock portfolios climb the destruction of the natural resources we depend on for survival becomes even more rampant.
What stands between the past uphill climb of our technological prowess and the unknown continuation of the plateau in front of us? How will we remember what it means to be socially connected and in touch with nature as devices become more alluring and we lose contact with the physical world just outside our doors? We need reminders and experiences to show that empathy, connection and shared physical experiences are the only clinically and scientifically proven methods of creating well being among human beings.
We believe technology isn’t itself the problem- rather, technology and the prevalent overuse that tends to happen on platforms such as social media, online forums, shopping and information sites are pointing to a larger disconnect at the societal level. Mainly, humans in the developing world are finding themselves more depressed and socially isolated than ever. This is due to a combination of a background narrative of political upheaval, environmental destruction, nuclear chaos, long work hours, fragmented families, never ending to-do lists, activities to keep up with, and most importantly the decrease in participation at the major social centers of our age: churches, parks, malls and community centers. Rather than ‘re-create’ the physical social fabric that maintains our health and emotional sanity, we have turned instead to digital devices and the convenience of electronic connection to those people and things that in the past brought us joy, meaning and connection.
The digital screen, with its offerings of face time with loved ones, push notifications from a friend, and promise of immediate delivery of an email have instead been co-opted by software developers and tech companies to fight for the one thing we can give them: our attention. For this reason, any activity online that involves an Internet enabled site or service such as social media, email or messaging also comes with it the promise of sharing our data and being inundated by ‘cookies’ that quite literally tempt us into clicking on the next article, buying the featured product or going down a rabbit hole of commentary stretching back the last 10 years.
Our goal is simple: continue to use digital screen technology as a tool for communication, information gathering and access to key goods and services. Avoid using screens for social interaction and creating a sense of Self or connection to the world. Be proactive about calling out abuse, bullying and negativity. Teach youth to become leaders in the ways of finding truth amongst ‘fake news’ and culling content for quality and not quantity. Re-create the social fabric of family and community connection to demonstrate that shared in person activity, eye contact, and physical touch are the ingredients to a resilient and happy life.
Our task is extremely difficult given the research that shows many are already subconsciously addicted to their digital devices. Neural pathways in the brain have been created and conditioned to want more screen time to continue the mirage of connection and meaning. Our journey therefore must take the form of a mythic odyssey- one that can snap our attention away from the on screen story of someone else’s life, and allow us to fully realize we must go down our own path to authentic being.