Teacherly Musing: Our Expectations of Technology

I clipped this article from MSNs Red Tape Chronicles blog a while back :  Why so much FAIL in the digital world?

Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan made a series of dramatic claims about the way digital devices are rewiring young brains in their 2008 book “iBrain, Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.”  Most of their assertions aren’t pretty. Given that adults commonly consume two, three or even more gadgets at once now — all while carrying on conversations with people – they are beginning to lose their ability to focus and concentrate, they say. They describe a phenomenon called “continuous partial attention,” a state of divided attention which leaves people unable to perform tasks that require concentration. Worse, it leaves its victims less and less able to connect with and empathize with each other, they said.

In children, the effects can be worse, they said.  When face-to-face contact is replaced by excessive digital media, a child’s neural circuits can atrophy and the brain may not develop normal interactive social skills. Small and Vorgan believe this is a big problem, and that a class of young heavy media users they call Digital Natives are suffering from extreme antisocial tendencies.

“Several studies in both children and adults … tie frequent technology use to conditions such as ADD, ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety and even sociopathic behavior,” they said.

Emory University English Professor Mark Bauerlein sees other risks in this phenomenon, and laments them in his book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. “ He’s worried that technology that was supposed to make our kids learn faster and smarter is actually robbing them of the ability to think.

“The Internet doesn’t impart adult information; it crowds it out,” he wrote. Students — even top college students — read rarely now, and the slang used for online chatting is eroding writing skills.

Even Weil, the “Technostress” author, is quick to say that technology is not the problem: “The problem is the way people use technology, and the expectations they have for it,” she said. (Underscores by me, for emphasis.)

This is scary. Just plain scary. Especially if you are a parent or teacher.  And it would explain a lot of the weird things that have happened in our educational systems over the past twenty or so years.

I’ve often wondered if this was part of the difference between excellent violin students (and parents) and mediocre ones. Granted, I’ve had students who were “gamers” who played at a very high level. Conversely, I’ve had students who weren’t allowed to even touch a computer unless a parent was present, who were constantly in a remedial state. Possibly every teacher has? I normally don’t blog about personal issues here, but this issue touches my life in a particularly personal way, and thus affects my views and teaching practices.  Various family members over the years, including myself (since I’m the only one who has given permission to blog about it), have dealt with ADD, depression and other mental illnesses.  Most of these happened before everyone had a PC and email.  I know, it was like, totally radical to come of age back in the ’80s.  So, yes, I understand; I’ve been there. And I realize that this is a very complicated issue with many points of view.

I’ve often thought that maybe the key lies in the expectations. After all, Dr. Suzuki taught, “you are the product of your environment.” However, in watching many kids over the years, I’m not sure that is entirely accurate in many cases.  One student’s mother did not willingly allow him to play WoW every waking moment.  Diagnosed with ADD, this student had all the classic trouble concentrating in school and forgetting assignments, but could routinely focus on gaming for sixteen hours at a stretch.  The mom even went so far as to take away his computer. It didn’t cure the problem — he simply broke into hers.  The saddest part is that the student (now in college) lives in a virtual world; he has his own reality. Even with the assistance of medication and counseling, he never modified the behavior that would enable him to function without his mother’s help in the “real world”.  However, once a medical professional settled on the ADD diagnosis, his mom stopped expecting anything from him, because she considers his ADD a disability. She thinks that everyone (including her) should basically give him whatever he wants (which is much different than providing accommodation for the disability.) (Then again,  I don’t know many students with true ADD who consider themselves disabled. Most disabled people go out of their way to live normal lives, even with necessary accommodations. If I am off the mark here, please feel free to call me on it in the comments.) His case definitely validates the premise of the article, even though in purely Suzuki terms, his mother allowed the environment to deteriorate and has enabled it to continue, to the detriment of the student’s emotional and psychological health.

Or maybe Dr. Suzuki was right on the mark and we tend to think about his statement too superficially, mainly because we don’t have time to dig deeper and consider all the consequences of our teaching skills (or parenting skills). I say this because I know many, many parents who have successfully used computer time as a reward for their kids for impulse control, practice motivation and doing what is expected of them. I think any normal student (or parent) understands that no amount of technological help is going to teach them anything they don’t want to learn. The violin is not going to play itself. Not even if you figure out a way to plug it into the computer. There is a certain amount of work involved, work that requires focus, concentration, and physical contact with the violin, a teacher, a parent and possibly all three. I often feel more like a psychologist than a violinist, because most of the things I do during lessons or practice involve getting around some sort of psychological blockage, which is essentially what lack of focus is.

I continually look for new ways to use technology in a way that will benefit my business and my students, to make learning and searching for new students easier (or make it easier for students to find me). We know, we have evidence that violin lessons help preschoolers develop focus and concentration, and improve some symptoms for kids who have ADD or ADHD, but I’m not  sure that we have the capability of  reversing “continuous partial attention”.  Is anyone researching the effects of music lessons on CPA? I’m no scientist, but it seems like a good field for some really productive research.  Continuously advancing technology sometimes seems like too much of a good thing, and there is a fine line between technology addiction and beneficial use, I think.

That being said, I am decidedly not a technology prude.  I rarely write letters — you know, those things we used to write in actual handwriting on actual paper with an actual pen — anymore, because technology has made me lazy email is faster and more convenient.  I have a website and a blog that are easily found on any major search engine. I teach live webcam lessons, an easy way to introduce students to technology regardless of their age or computer expertise. I write blog posts, program notes and articles on violin playing, teaching, and technology. I do consulting for teachers and organizations, and I am trying to branch out into music activism and management, to keep my old skills fresh as well as learn new ones, and broaden my life experience so I can help more people. So why do I need Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and all those other virtual networking places? The simple answer is that I don’t, really.  I have a personal Facebook page and a profile on LinkedIn, but I rarely use them. I’d rather use those avenues for setting up meetings with actual people, as opposed to virtual meetings with avatars who might not be using their real names.  I have other things I’d rather spend my time doing than determining who is real and who is not. Technology is not as rational as we are sometimes led to believe. Just because it’s based on logic doesn’t mean it can make good decisions for us.

Technology is a means to an end, not the end itself.  Current technology cannot replicate what we learn and do as violinists and teachers. Neither can it replicate our learning process. It is doubtful that future technology will reproduce that amazingly wonderful spark that happens when a concept takes root in a student’s brain.  It may happen, but it seems as remote a possibility as a terabyte of storage did to me two years ago.  So,  I think that most teachers  will continue to teach without the aid of technology, for the most part, for many years to come.

What say you, teachers? Do you use tech? How?

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