Are kids getting dumber?

Take a poll and add a comment to explain your response in greater detail.


As for my own response, affect is a powerful motivator in student thinking. As strong as the feelings in an in-class discussion on “Story of An Hour” might be, with interesting and complex male/female dynamics, strongly held opinions, and shared enthusiasm for speaking and listening, so too is the tug and excitement possible during a written exchange on Twitter, IM, texting. The scene in Bye Bye Birdie comes to mind when in “Telephone Hour” all the teenagers in town are busy talking on the phone. Is this really any different? Was a similar sense of fear perpetrated by (and on) educators and parents when Ma Bell introduced the party line?
I am concerned about the ability to think deeply and the practice of sustained engagement with ideas, such as the habit of following a logical argument. But my worries are quelled when I see students able to be very engaged in reading novels or playing video games which demand focused attention. It may be that the claim that teachers are waging a battle for the attention of their students is an inadequate analogy. It supposes that a weak-minded teenager is caught in a firestorm: on her left, a barrage of media images assault her mind and, like some sort of Pied Piper, woo in order to conquer and lead her astray; on her right, a fusillade of books from one old literary canon, its fuse lit by some Ichabod Crane who teaches as he did in his one-room schoolhouse (except his desks are circled instead of ranked and filed) defends her virtuous mind, in order to save and lead her into the paths of wisdom. To the victor will go the spoils. But is this analogy an accurate depiction of the forces which are contesting the territory of the student’s mind?
Let’s imagine another model. In the same way that you and I are engaged in ongoing conversations here and elsewhere about things that interest us, teens will find ways to spend their time which engage them. In the new scenario, the young person is not AT risk, but rather a risk-TAKER. Her social and academic worlds are not in competition for her attention, but they exist before her as colors in a palette, from which she may choose as she constructs her identity.
She is in command of a variety of resources (electronic, paper and ink, and time itself). She has little control over the hours spent in school, nor access to the full variety in her arsenal there, but she has a dazzling array of resources at her fingertips which make risk-taking easier than it was for me. In the same way that, when I was a kid, my friends and I exchanged 45s to hear what each other was listening to, she may take minimal risks by watching YouTube videos of bands her friends recommend, in order to try to find out what she likes, and why. She may distinguish herself from her friends by not liking their choice in music, but by establishing her own tastes. If she decides to play an instrument, during practice she needn’t wait for her next lesson to ask her teacher to help her solve a fingering problem – she may be able to investigate online and see examples of how other players solve similar problems. She may even begin composing, recording, engineering, and sharing her music with a wider audience than would have been possible when I was younger. Whereas I had one good college dictionary at home when I needed to define a new term, she can check four to five sources in under a minute to arrive at the most likely definition for a word with multiple meanings. I am thinking of time as a resource she “invests”. One skill that remains constant between the older ways and newer ways is the skill of time management. Students have always needed to learn how to manage their time.
One sort of risk-taking, then, is to decide that one half-hour spent reading “Story of An Hour” now will be worth it for the excitement I may anticipate feeling tomorrow in class as a participant whose ideas are heard. I may need to operate on trust, which may be based on past experience of the teacher’s choices in stories, or may be a riskier step of blind faith. I may need to take risks as well when I am discussing this story, but I may have felt that the reward is worth while.
I am wondering if seeing time as the greatest resource, and the student as master of her time, is an appropriate stance. I do assert that learning involves risk-taking and communication about things one cares about. It also takes time. If I can focus my own attention on communicating how much I care about the literature I teach, about the students and their conversations, about my own learning as well as theirs, I suspect that as they see me painting my own portrait with the colors I have been given in my own palette, they too will experiment with theirs, creating studies and revising portraits with the time and resources they have been given.
No longer do I find it helpful to wage a war against a powerful enemy for a child’s soul; I do find it edifying to see myself as an artist or craftsman, engaged in projects of my own, and willing to learn from others as we share the same tools, colors, and studio space.

Addendum: Check out this related post


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