Kids These Days

I teach reading, writing, and communication skills to undergraduate college students. Before I made the jump to post-secondary ed., I taught high school English. I have a MA in English and am working on a second masters degree in Technical and Professional Communication. I love to read and learn. School is clearly my happy place. But that happy place is increasingly that place where I’m looking at the young people around me in horror, wringing my hands about what will become of the world when these kids get hold of it.

In the past five years, I’ve had several situations where I’ve finished my semester thinking the most lasting and impactful thing I’ve taught my students is the importance of taking notes and having a planner. I used to enjoy thrilling class discussions early in the research essay process when students were trying out their arguments on each other to identify holes in their reasoning. Students also used to tackle big topics and seek out unique solutions to the problems they identified. Lately, though, I’ve pivoted to spend far more time trying to incentivize students to do more than simply Google the specific information they need to prove what they think is the truth. Why go to the bother of struggling through the science on climate change when I can Google “climate change hoax” or “climate change polar bear”?

I don’t think this is personal failing on the parts of these students. I really don’t. In measurable ways, they are hardworking, and too many of them struggle with real anxiety and depression on a daily basis. This is less a case of “kids these days,” as it is a “what have we done?” situation. Chayko points out that “In general, people who attempt to multitask regularly and chronically suffer cognitive and behavioral deficits. They have difficulty recalling information and are slower at processing information.” Between infinite choices on the television thanks to cable, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and the like, as well as their smartphones and social media accounts, we brought them up in a world that demands they multitask or be left behind. Now I’m going to expect them to focus and dive deep on issues when everything in their lives has rewarded them for doing the opposite? I can try, but it’s not going to be pretty.

And that anxiety that can sometimes cripple an otherwise successful student to the point that they fail the class because they can’t bring themselves to write a final essay I have proof they are perfectly capable of writing? Chayko has that covered, too: “Anxiety can be experienced even when people are simply unable to answer their ringing cell phones. In a study by journalism professors Russell Clayton, Glenn Leshner, and Anthony Almond (2015), iPhone users who were unable to answer their ringing phones while completing a puzzle reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. Their heart rates and blood pressure increased. Their cognitive functioning was impaired, and they had a hard time paying attention to the task at hand.” The very presence of their smartphones creates anxiety. Unfortunately, the absence of their phones does the same thing. Solve that riddle for me, please. Students either check their phones for communications and risk the loss of focus or ignore their phones and risk the loss of focus.

Schools should be the place where we teach students how to resolve these paradoxes in their lives, how to manage their distractions and find the joy of deep focus and thought. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. We did some bad things to our educational system at the same time we were creating these other distractions, though. “It can be argued that many aspects of a society, including social systems such as education, health care, and the government, have become McDonaldized—so concerned with moving people through their systems in predictable, calculable ways that individuals are becoming more controlled, less empowered, and somewhat dehumanized in the process.” 🤦🤦‍♀️ Ooops?

It’s possible that the human brain that is weaned on an iPhone will be able to handle the multitasking better than brains that started with boring paper books and local channel television options, and I trust teachers to find the spaces in between the standardized requirements to sneak in inspirational, life changing learning experiences for students. This is probably no different than previous generational disagreements about priorities and values. I’ve heard that people thought books would destroy the fabric of society when they were made more widely available. Imagine how it might have been for our great-great-great-great grandparents trying to pry their child away from a book to engage in conversation. Slip a phone into that picture instead of the book and it looks awfully familiar! So maybe it isn’t as bad I think, but these distractions, this anxiety, this lack of critical thinking and sustained focus can’t be ignored, either. For sure, though, the blame is not on the kids. It’s on us.

Posted on October 18, 2020, in Literacy, Social Media, Society, Teaching, Technology, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This semester is definitely tougher than most for my freshmen, but I have noticed that instead of being distracted by phones or even their laptops, they’re taking notes and mentioning that they will print readings and worksheets out. My guess is that they have screen fatigue, but it was worrisome because I felt like they weren’t listening to my instructions for the first paper, although I guess their focus was on the projected screen rather than following along on their own screens?

    What you say about the crippling anxiety does seem to be the case for a few students, though, and I wonder how things will play out for the rest of the term. I did hear that the student government was going to argue for a Credit/No Credit option rather than letter grade (which did happen in the Spring), so perhaps that will help some and retain even more? Was this an option at your school last Spring too? Here’s additional information on how it worked:

    When determining a CR/NC policy for their course, instructors are asked to consult with their departments to find the right balance between upholding appropriate standards of work and providing flexibility and compassion to students who are facing unexpected and extraordinary circumstances.
    Students should closely examine the ramifications of the CR/NC option and consult with their instructors and advisors about the decision. The CR/NC option is available to all undergraduate courses, regardless of modality. Students who decide to continue pursuing a letter grade for a course, and not select the CR/NC option, do not need to take any action at this time.

    From what I heard, some students did not consult their profs and chose the CR/NC when they were actually doing quite well and could have boosted their GPAs. 😐

    • I’ve noticed that switch to note taking, as well. I’ve been stunned by it, actually, since I have had to direct students to write things down for years now. Maybe as the 1:1 technology initiatives have aged in K-12, teachers have observed that the Chromebook or iPad is not a replacement for the benefits of hand written notes and have adjusted their instruction and expectations accordingly. I wonder what our classrooms and students will look like in 10 years?

      The novelty of everything going on right now definitely leaves me feeling like anything and everything should be on the table, but it also gives me the feeling of living in a constant experiment. The CR/NC option is just one of the many adaptations that meet one need but unintentionally create others. I assume that if that option is offered again this semester, students will be encouraged, if not required, to discuss their options with their instructors before making their choices. There just aren’t “best practices” for what we’re trying to do right now yet.

  2. Emily,
    The image you attached made me smile as soon as I started reading your post. I believe it is a great idea to start your posting with the image because the image clearly explains what you want to say, and at the same time, it perfectly goes well with your posting title. As you mentioned the issue of the younger generation’s lack of critical thinking, I also pointed it out in my posting. I am also a teacher in the ESL/EFL environment. When I see the generation that grew up with a cell phone and tablet in their hands, I also feel worried about their using technological gadgets that could have caused the lack of critical thinking. You explained that we are partially responsible for this situation since we build the social atmosphere and educational backgrounds. Then what can we do? I believe that it is a good idea to control the time for children to use a computer or cell phone. There are various types of apps and systems for this issue and actually many parents use them in S. Korea. I heard it is pretty effective. I hope there would be more other options that can be helpful for this matter in the future.
    Thank you for the nice post!

    • YJ
      The school district here has a tool installed on all their technology that logs and reports to parents what their children are doing on the web at all times. It’s really been very helpful in giving us (as parents) a firm footing from which to have conversations with our children individually about the challenges they face staying on task when the many distractions of the internet are calling. Without that evidence, it would be more difficult to call them out when they insist that they’ve only been doing their school work all day.

  3. Emily,
    I related so much to you describing how students use Google as a shortcut. I was guilty of it in high school when I wanted a different explanation for solving equations than my unintelligible class notes. Reliance on search engines alone might not be sufficient for many different occasions. Just today I tried to look up a product rating that we put on industrial coating labels, but I could not find any positive hits on Google. The rating contains a four letter acronym and is always the same value for what we sell. The department manager was not in today, so I was stuck and unsure if I needed to add the rating and why. If I had any educational experience involving technical specifications, I might have been introduced to the history of the rating, who developed it, and what online or book resource it would be found in. All to say, I hope curriculum continues to instruct kids in the ways before the Internet. I really believe the student benefits that much more in developing confidence and building skills if they are separate from their technology use at times.

    • Liz
      I agree with you that the quick Google search has plenty of appropriate applications. If people don’t know how to recognize the difference between a situation that calls for trusting Google or Siri’s first response and the situation that needs serious time spent in deep in active reading, critical thinking, and analysis, those individuals will continue to function thinking they’re standing on fact-based ground, when in fact, they are being misled by who knows what interests. So, yes! Education still absolutely has to teach how the internet works, how to dissect sources, how to read, and how to think. I hope there are enough of us who believe this to make it happen! 🙂

  4. Emily,

    Your post hits close to home! My English department and I have been discussing returning to basic writing and reasoning skills in our classes. I think one answer might be a “less, more deeply” approach to teaching, which I’ve always favored anyway. One reason students are tempted to Google answers and plagiarize is that they feel confused about the topic or the instructions for the assignment, or because they feel like they don’t have enough time to complete the work on their own. If we as teachers can open up our lesson plans a little bit and not worry so much about preparing students for standardized tests, we could make the classroom a fun place to be. One of my goals is to make students feel relaxed and comfortable in my classroom so that they will engage in critical thinking skills and take risks.

    • Leanna
      I love that “less, more deeply” approach. I attended a virtual conference yesterday where one of the speakers was cautioning against measuring productivity by activities. In other words, don’t point to the number of meetings you’ve held, emails you’ve sent, and phone calls made and call it productivity. I think schools have been forced (many times by external forces) into this way of proving themselves. Our students have covered 50 years of American history in three months! We’ve completed four assessments already this year! And at the cost of what? Actual learning? The formation of connections between important ideas and the appreciation for the importance of the facts themselves?

      I remember we turned our classroom into a rainforest one year in elementary school when we were studying that topic. Was the time spent cutting and pasting and hanging strictly applied to social studies or science? No, but we did consult our resources to make our plants look native to the region; we did understand which types of plants grew up high, which were lower down, and what animals inhabited all the spaces in between. And we loved it. Learning was fun! That spills over into other subjects, too. I don’t know that there’s time for that type of learning with the pressure of assessments constantly on every teacher’s mind. Ugh. I could go on forever!

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