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.


  1. I'm curious about your discussion on YouTube and empathy. This generation certainly laughs at "fails" but a lot of their interaction with YouTube seems to be celebration of "wins," which are all kinds of crazy, quirky accomplishments that my generation wouldn't have had the guts to even try, much less post for the world to see for fear being scoffed at.

  2. With more time to reflect, I find that two threads from this past week's conversation rise to the surface of my attention: problem-solving and empathy. (I see sustaining concentration as a sister to problem-solving.) To solve problems and experience empathy, I need to pause and consider. I need to look around and listen. Both of these activities take time; they also are two different ways to observe. I once wrote about an imaginary school that is divided into three "disciplines": observe, consider and create. The first step in learning is noticing (observing). I must be able to do this, before I can set my mind and heart to learning. As I walk and drive the streets of San Francisco, an iconically digital city just up the road from Silicon Valley, I see many people each day who appear almost completely unable to look around and listen--at least as they are crossing the street in front of moving buses or rushing their vehicle through the red light. If, as President Obama encouraged us in his recent Tucson Memorial speech, we are to strengthen our moral imaginations and widen the circle of our concern, we need empathy. As individuals and as members of the United States, we need empathy to solve local and national problems. When students encounter challenges in or out of class, they need to know what they know and be ready to understand what others know, too.

  3. Craig, I'll let Robin respond, since she raised that issue. As for me, your input helps me think about this, since you have a stronger sense than I of the actual use students regularly make of sites like YouTube. If you have a "win" link or two, please send them on.
    My memory is that Robin worried about the strand of YouTube traffic that includes or promotes hateful speech, to which with enough exposure students can become desensitized.
    Again, I'll let her chime in with the observations and concerns she has. Thanks for commenting--because my summaries leave plenty of room for questions like yours.

  4. I made a playlist of "wins" that I'd favorited: