Kids These Days
Posted by Emily Hayes
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.
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