Thursday, February 4, 2010
Electronic Clutter and the Mental Desktop
From Giltrow's book, I can picture the simple line drawings of someone at a desk - the mental "desktop" - dealing calmly and competently with a few desktop papers, and someone with little beads of sweat flying from the forehead, trying to deal with too much desktop clutter.
The desktop metaphor and simple visuals existed to help students learn to write with readers' limitations in mind - writers help readers manage clutter. Solid research shows that humans' processing abilities while reading require that help.
I was reminded of the drawings and their message while reading "Dividing Attention," by David Glenn in The Chronicle of Higher Education (1/31/10). The article addresses the growing problem of electronic distractions in classrooms, attitudes about multi-tasking "abilities," and scientific research on the issues.
Educators are rightly worried about students' attention in classes, as the students text, surf, and chat, while trying to learn the course material. Individual institutions and instructors deal with such distractions, successfully or otherwise, in a variety of ways, depending on their beliefs about "hyperattention" and the ability to multi-task - from outright bans on electronic gadgets to complete accommodation.
I have heard much nonsense about the generation of young people who have grown up "digital," much about their supposed super abilities and hyperattention - how they are so much better at working with all the digital bits on their mental desktops than their elders could possibly imagine.
The human brain hasn't changed in a generation. While people now work with many cognitive inputs at once - driving, texting, drinking coffee; and surfing, texting, listening to a lecture - they aren't processing any of it as well as when they focused on fewer things.
The subjective feeling that one is accomplishing great things, being efficient and productive, acording to Glenn, incorrectly shores up the belief that one can do it all well. I can't count the number of people I've met who insist that they can perfectly well text and drive (which is apparently worse for causing accidents than drinking and driving to a degree).
Brain research says otherwise.
After a certain point, we aren't processing at all, let alone efficiently. But in spite of conclusive and repeated scientific evidence, there will be those who will continue to think we should "get with the program" and respect the new processing powers of the young. To too many in education, anecdotal evidence and the strength of their beliefs dictate practice.
There is probably no one solution to the problem. But doing nothing and believing the myths about super abilities accommodates our students right out of an education. And it does a great disservice to society.
We need ways to free our students' mental desktops from too much digital clutter and help them to regain focus on their studies. And we need to do it soon.
(cluttered desk photo credit)