Tuesday, September 27, 2011

we have moved

I have recently started posting at this address, maroonballoon.wordpress.com.
There you will find a link back to this learning in time site, but from now on I will write in the new location--named after a children's book from France and a poem by Yeats.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

info overload: navigating a sea of data and occasionally drowning

Yesterday's New York Times front-page article, in the series they call "Your Brain on Computers,"  has prompted several thoughts ("In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly").  First, before I forget the thought forged on this morning's walk with our dog Sybil, Nicholas Carr's call for balance keeps re-surfacing in my conversations with others and with myself.  While he recognizes our ability to retrieve information with the new technologies, Carr sees us losing the complementary ability to contemplate.  (Incidentally, I wonder how much these two ways of thinking overlap with what Karen Armstrong, in A Short History of Myth and The Case for God, calls "logos" and "mythos.")  The Times article focuses on the US military's use of technology to remotely communicate with battlefields in Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The military is on the "forefront" of figuring out how to manage information overload, especially for those soldiers who monitor "Death TV" back in Nevada and elsewhere.  Investigators are trying to determine what goes wrong, when the armed services personnel accidentally kill local civilians.  Apparently, in a recent case, those monitoring a steady stream of incoming video data did not notice the strong evidence of children present in the "convoy" they were watching.  In other words, their brains did not successfully navigate the sea of data; they drowned, and those children died.  Carr's call to preserve our contemplative abilities, as a route to greater balance, increasingly resonates with me--as I observe my own behavior, as well as the students'.

Second, the Times article prompted my reaction to the statement that the military is "at the forefront in figuring out how humans can cope with technology without becoming overwhelmed" (A6).  (Incidentally, I find helpful this mention of becoming overwhelmed; I can guide students and talk with colleagues more effectively, if I remember that part of the issue involves the degree of distraction.)  Later, the article quotes an assistant professor working with the military: "The whole question we're asking is whether we can rewire the functioning of the attention system through mindfulness."  Although the term "rewiring" has emerged recently, the practice of mindfulness began thousands of years ago near the area we now call India.  I couldn't help but notice that we are re-discovering (re-learning) what we humans have known, or used to know.  In one sense, this ancient skill has existed on our collective screen all along--like those children in the Death TV video.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Conversations: Summary and Reflections #1

The first group met this past Monday for about forty-five minutes, and I will use this space to summarize and reflect on several threads of our conversation.  In other words, this is not a verbatim transcript.  It is simply my way of capturing some of our thoughts and considering them further.  I trust my conversation colleagues to correct or clarify any of my statements, should the need arise.  Other colleagues--here at BAY School or elsewhere--are encouraged to chime in with experiences or ideas that come to mind, as they read these accounts.

All in the group agreed that Carr's statements in the packet (see those listed in previous posts) reflect their experiences with students.  We ended up focusing on a few of his statements.  For example, we talked about our growing need for explanations outside ourselves.  We are developing the habit of writing queries for search engines, rather than exercising our internal memories, understandings and skills.  Some of us remember strong "gut" experiences with students who exhibit this dependency on external explanations and solutions.

At the same time, we wondered if students, the digital natives, can, in actuality, multi-task effectively.  In today's and tomorrow's world this ability seems an important asset, but it can also degrade one's ability to concentrate.  On the other hand, some students who multi-task with notable frequency can concentrate on one task, when it excites their passion.  This thread raised a question about concentrating while performing a skill, like programming, versus concentrating on gradations and perspectives in trying to understand potential energy. 

We also discussed the laptop's influence on the students' ability to listen to each other.  It appears that discussions improve when students close their laptops.  For example, the students are more able, and more likely, to build on the insights of others.  With laptops open, classroom discussions often feel truncated.

In a related thread we talked about empathy and sites like YouTube.  For example, it seems that regular open access to hateful speech desensitizes all people, but especially younger ones. We agree with Carr, and many others who have said as much over the centuries (use what you already know), that empathy requires a degree of mindfulness and attention.  In addition, repeated flitting through information without consciously processing has long-term implications for a person's emotional and moral condition.  (Think Tucson, Arizona, 08 January 2011)

When we "think hard about simple things," we can build the conceptual frameworks that help us consciously navigate the rush of information.  Without such schema, we are persistently saturated with new information that replaces the old, before we can move that older information to long-term memory.  Less is sticking with us.  No wonder we have to look outside ourselves for explanations.  And when we do, as one of us noted from a study Carr describes, scholarly articles sometimes tend to cite fewer and more recent sources.

On reflection, forty-five minutes sped by, while we almost flitted from one interesting topic to the next.  Granted that what appears above is summary; even so, it feels like flitting to me.  Perhaps the shadow of Carr's book makes this exchange feel small.  Maybe the size of the phenomenon and the extent of its impact on our lives contribute to this feeling.  I certainly value the time we spent talking, and look forward to more conversations.  I know how several of my colleagues feel about these issues, and I see that their experiences and perceptions match a number of mine.  Perhaps, I excerpted too many different ideas, but these seem basic and different enough to form a foundation for the overall subject.  For me, each of these subtopics resonates in a significant, distinct way.
Finally, I should say that these discussions have helped me observe and consider patterns in my students' behavior much sooner than I would without these conversations.  For this reason alone, I appreciate my colleagues' commitment to these talks.  And finally for real, these conversations--the accumulation of and reflection on them--represent the type of activity the internet is training our brain to forgetsustained concentration on a subject over time.  Yes, this topic seems interesting, but what would come of recurring conversations about it?  We'll see.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Our Natural Resources: knowing and using them wisely

Today during class, I noted a brief exchange with a student in my literature class, "The Drama of Math and Science."  I recorded it because it reminded me of a recent conversation with colleagues about The Shallows.  Specifically, I remembered the conversation about learning to use what we already know.

Here's my record of the classroom exchange:

Exchange with student (cf. The Shallows):

student: Can we use our reading notes?
me: Yes.
me: I try to help students develop layers of resources for reading a play.  Our culture promotes moving quickly from one activity to the next.  As a result, we sometimes forget resources we have built in the recent past.

Today students were finding passages in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus that overlapped with questions they said they would ask themselves when "their time came."  They have finished reading the play, and were doing this exercise as a way to reflect further on some of its ideas.  Last week, once they had begun to read Act Two, they started submitting a set of reading notes for each act, according to a template I composed for the opening lines of Act Two.

This student's asking "Can we use our reading notes?" struck me as a prime example of how quickly we, the students and I, are trained to move quickly onto the next agenda item, without pausing to ask, "What resources do I have to complete this task?" 

In keeping with the theme of this post, I neglected to survey the small groups, after they had returned from doing the exercise.  Tomorrow, I will ask, "Who used their reading notes at all while doing yesterday's exercise?"

This post I will copy and paste onto the OneNote page called "Class Notes"--where I recorded today's brief exchange with an exceptionally astute student.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Empathy: Conversations with Colleagues about THE SHALLOWS

“It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind.  It’s also empathy and compassion.” (220)

“ . . . the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.”

“ . . . as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.” (221)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mind Control: Conversations with Colleagues about THE SHALLOWS

“ . . . according to attention restoration therapy, or ART, . . . when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax.  They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions.  The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind. (219)

p.s. I prefer "contemplation" to Carr's term; I ma not sure his sentence needs the hyper-extended noun.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Problem-Solving: Conversations with Colleagues about THE SHALLOWS

“As we ‘externalize’ [sub-contract] problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’—schemas, in other words—that can later ‘be applied in new situations.’” (216)

p.s. Note today's New York Times featured article in "Education Life"--about the College Board's sweeping changes in the AP tests towards developing stronger problem-solving skills  (n.b. the Board's increased attention to depth over breadth, in response to feedback from classroom teachers).