Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What NASA and that kid drooling on his desk in your class have in common.


Yesterday, I began writing this blog in response to an article from the NY Times that addresses technology in classrooms. The author clearly feels very strongly about the detriments of technology to education, devoting one short paragraph of seventeen to its usefulness in certain scenarios. I feel very strongly that technology can revolutionize education, making learning relevant, applicable, and enjoyable for American students. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that I needed more than seventeen paragraphs. I needed the limitless boundaries of the internet. This is where I left off. Let me get my umbrella hat back on and head to the street corner.

NASA Visualization Explorer by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Point Two:

In a 2012 survey of elementary and middle school teachers by Common Sense Media, 71 percent of teachers say entertainment media use has hurt students’ attention spans “a lot” or “somewhat.” 

I'd like to know where the 71% got the research to support this claim. Had they done studies on their own students? Or could it be that we need a scapegoat for kids being bored to tears by a curriculum that insists teachers teach to multiple choice tests in non-interactive environments? 

Because here's the thing, and I'm going to focus on video games since that was the specific entertainment media targeted by the author of this piece, there's evidence that suggests that some video games actually support the brain processes that focus visual attention and inhibit distractions. A study done by the University of Toronto found that action video games can improve selective visual attention. Another at the University of Rochester in the US found that gamers are able to filter out irrelevant information and spot targets in a cluttered scene more quickly than non-gamers. study at NASA is even using video games to help improve the attention span of people of all ages. NASA chose video games for this study because video game-like simulations had been effective in training pilots to remain focused while in flight. They chose the Extended Attention Span Training (EAST) system - that's million dollar NASA-speak for really expensive video game - because pilots aren't using scrap paper and scan-trons to navigate jets. They're using technology, like the majority of our students will in their future jobs.

On the other hand, Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M and T. Atilla Ceranoglu of Harvard Medical School have indicated that research done to prove video games are bad for attention spans were based predominately on the say-so of teachers. And we already know what 71% of the teachers think about it. Furthermore, most studies that suggest students' attention spans are harmed by video games don't take into account the fact that many of the children had problems focusing prior to exposure to video games, either because they were bored, they were preoccupied by situations outside of the scope of their classrooms, or because they were biologically pre-disposed to attention disorders.  

Kids who are bored to tears in classrooms come alive while playing video games because video games provide novelty and challenge (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't make you start all the way over at the beginning if you screw up a couple of times (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't force you to endure the same scene, the same characters, the same dialogue over and over and over again (unlike the traditional school model). Video games only get harder as gamers gain the skills they need to progress (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't force you to stay at the level of other gamers until they gain the skills they need to progress; you can move up as soon as you're up for it (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't consider fun to be a four letter word (unlike the traditional school model.) And P.S. traditional school model, I can do the math: it's not a four letter word.  

Point Three:

The findings have had no apparent effect on palpable enthusiasm for interactive teaching. When experienced teachers express skepticism about the value of computer games in school, they’re often viewed as foot-draggers or change-resistant Luddites. A 2012 Project Tomorrow report (paid for in part by the technology industry), found that only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology helps students deeply explore their own ideas.

That screwy 28% just will not listen to reason. You can see them. So excited. Nauseatingly giddy over innovation and change.  With their fancy ideas about computers and games and robots that will eventually bring on the apocalypse, mark my word! Their abominable enthusiasm for interactive teaching! Gone are the happy days when you could just stand up in front of a class full of sheepish clones and tell them what to think and what to write. Now we've got to interact with them? What is the world coming to? Send these hippies back to wherever they came from and let's get back to the business of scantrons - safe, easy scantrons.

Damn right they're viewed as foot-dragging, change-resistant Luddites.  What I especially love about this is that last statistic: only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology helps students deeply explore their own ideas.  Only 17%.  And we know that the minority can never be right.  I'm looking at you, Copernicus, you ill begotten upstart. 

However, there's a key word here: current.  Seventeen percent of current teachers don't think technology provides students with opportunities to explore their own ideas.  Let's look at the whole quote that the author cherry picks from the report by Project Tomorrow:

Only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology can help students deeply explore their own ideas, compared to 59 percent of incoming teachers

I can't tell you how surprised I am to find that new teachers are less jaded than veteran teachers.  Because I'm not a bit surprised.  I've seen it first-hand.  I've heard it all.  "I've been teaching twenty years without technology, why should I have to learn it now?"

Because you're a freaking teacher.  That's why.  I am in no way suggesting that all teachers must use technology all the time, but they absolutely must wrap their minds around the fact that their students will be steeped in technology in their future lives, as they are right now.  If we are not prepared to understand the world they are entering, to prepare ourselves to prepare them, then we are not fit to teach.  If we're unwilling to even consider the possibility of using technology because we didn't have it when we were growing up, we're completely out of touch with reality.  If I could only have what my mother had and she could only have what her mother had and so on back, we'd all still be sitting around a fire trying to figure out how to pick it up without burning ourselves. The day a teacher is unwilling to learn something new to support her students is the day she needs to retire.  Period.  

Fortunately even with the minimal math skills accrued in my years in traditional, utterly dull math classes, I'm able to pull together enough brain power to know that 76% of the teachers (those inspired incoming teachers and those inspiring veterans) have got it going on.  That's not a bad number.  Not as good as it should be, but not terrible.

And I'm going to leave you with that positive thought until tomorrow because there's still more.  Here's where I'll start:

Moving forward. Point Four:

News Corporation plans to introduce in schools a new tablet computer ...Take-home games for the device include one in which Tom Sawyer fights the Bront√ęs. (Lest children avert their attention to the actual books.)

Because everyone knows we're only able to enjoy one form of media at a time.  

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