And now… the internet and texting are destroying the ability of children to focus on anything for more than a minute or two. At least, that’s what today’s front page Times article entitled “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction” tries to tell us. In case you’d like to read it in full, along with accompanying videos, here is the link:
The short version is this: kids today are so caught up in technology – texting, internet sites like Facebook and YouTube, etc., that they are no longer able to focus, especially when it comes to schoolwork.
That was supposed to be the message of the piece, but the Times did something unexpected and probably inadvertent; they made a great case for unschooling. One of the students featured in the article, Vishal Singh, a 17 year old Senior at Woodside High School in California, was supposed to be the poster child for how digital technology adversely affects academic excellence. He tested into advanced classes when he was younger and was a model student – until he got a computer and discovered the internet. Now he lets his grades slide at school in favor of time on Facebook. (Damn you, Mark Zuckerberg!) But wait a minute, it turns out that he spends much of his time on the computer making films and music videos – hours, in fact, intent on editing and sound mixing…. hmm, doesn’t sound like an inability to focus to me. Sounds like he’s uninterested in focusing on the subjects being taught at school. Which are two entirely different things. Then the Times mentions, completely in passing, that Singh, “wants it [a music video] to be part of the package of work he submits to colleges that emphasize film study, along with a documentary he is making about homeschooled students.”
Whoa! What? That nugget of info was a tagline at the end of a paragraph (although I’m told the on line version had a link to the trailer. Here it is for your enjoyment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7uW6y12nzSE ) And the Times got it wrong. The movie is not about homeschooling, but unschooling! Either the reporter didn’t watch the trailer or didn’t think anyone would know what unschooling is, although the trailer is great at explaining it. So here’s a kid who supposedly can’t focus due to all the distractions provided by digital technology, and yet he is independently teaching himself film-making and making a documentary about unschooling!?
Yet another student noted, regarding the ‘distractions’ of technology, “Video games don’t make the hole; they fill it.” So for some, the distractions fill the hole – the void created by a day filled with nothing but subjects in which they have no interest. For others like Singh, they may lead to a life passion.
The principal of Woodside recognizes that his students are far more interested in audio and visual technologies than in more traditional subjects. He started an audio production class which uses the latest high tech equipment to teach kids how to mix and edit music. The classes (there are 4 of them now) are packed and the students sit in rapt undivided attention for the entire hour. Umm, again, where does this signify an inability to focus?
Of course the article talks about the parents wringing their hands and trying to ‘get’ the kids to do their homework, and about battles over time on the computer, texting, etc. The comments attached to the online version of the article were predominantly from people who said the parents were at fault. They should ‘force’ the children to read the assigned books. They should take away the computer. One commenter, who at least recognized that Singh did not have trouble focusing on film-making, said he was definitely an exception because he seemed so driven. Ahh, the old, ‘but they are the exception’ excuse. Please. It’s just that the other kids haven’t had the chance, or luck, to find their passion. They’ve been too busy arguing with their parents over homework they hate, and filling the holes in their empty lives by texting and skyping their friends. How passionate can you be about forever preparing for a future that is uncertain and out of reach? One English teacher quoted in the article pointed out that if Singh really wants to be a film-maker, reading is essential (Singh failed to read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, which was a summer reading assignment). But then again, if Singh was asked to adapt Cat’s Cradle to film, he’d be all over the book. The point, again, is interest and relevance to what motivates the child.
Which brings us back to unschooling. The Times fails to prove that digital technology is ruining childrens’ ability to focus. What it does prove in spite of itself is that when a kid is interested in something, their focus knows no bounds. Though most readers seem to have missed it, it also very effectively shines a light on the real problem, which is not the technology, but the compulsory schooling and standardized curriculum. I say it over and over: the problem is not the kids or their interests; the problem is the factory-based system and the attempt to coerce them into learning. Coercion never works. Never. Test scores are not low because of Facebook. Or YouTube. Or Skype. Test scores are low because many kids don’t give a s#*& about the curriculum they are force fed every day.
Watch Singh’s trailer. I have no doubt that if he continues to hone his film-making skills, and there is every reason to believe that he will, the grades he got as a Senior at Woodside High School aren’t going to matter very much at all.