Thursday, February 4, 2010

Electronic Clutter and the Mental Desktop

As a graduate student and beginning teacher of writing, I had the good fortune to work with Janet Giltrow, author of Academic Writing: Writing and Reading in the Disciplines. I have used her sound advice and techniques for many years now.

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.

Turns out that is just plain wrong!

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)


Walk Talk Tours said...

Giving a youngster the chance to getaway from it all by taking them camping (without any modern gadgets) is a great way for people to re-connect with their senses and hone basic survival and social skills.

ChrisJ said...

Walk Talk Tours,

Good idea, and parents could establish a gadget-free period of each dat as well.

Pearl said...

speaking as someone who does parallel tasks by default and from a very cluttered workspace, one sustained focus gets a more thorough understanding. perhaps it's a matter of discipline strategies. when monkey mind comes change task to outrun monkey instead of screening out the fruit being pelted at you and keep going?

ChrisJ said...


Good strategies which I think we all use sometimes - but they don't work very well in a classroom where everyone's monkey mind is on a different schedule. (Interesting though, I'll have to think about how to work with that!).

Trulyfool said...

We have to live with situations as they arise, and electronic speed is with us.

I teach at a local college fearing (as most of them -- all of them? -- do) to be seen Luddite, fearing to lose student enrollment, fearing to lose tax support.

So it (as institutions do) has no lack of administrative cheerleaders and departments devoted to 'technologizing' everything.

The young adult students see electronics as the pleasure of their present and the fulfillment of their future.

Here's where the role as 'educator' enters. To distract them from those distractions. To talk. To ask questions. To put them on the spot. To wake them. To jar them. To coo at them. To sympathize with them. To joke at the world.

In short, to humanize the environment showing what person-to-person discussion really is.

What's done inside a classroom to (clap!) wake students from the daze brought on by a 'cocktail' of commercial barrage, social anomie, and electronic gadgets -- that's the only direct way to bypass the electronic grid.

To slow things down. To show the value of things slowed down.

ChrisJ said...


You are right, of course. But I often find that when the ignorance and arrogance many students have achieved in K-12 is factored in, humanizing/slowing is unwelcome.

And too often "technologizing" administrators wish to always blame instructors who are mere content experts and won't "get on board" with the newly minted (and logically unsound and unproven) horsepuckie from faculties of Education!

I don't want, but will accept, the Luddite label, but will not accept the "pretzelization" (!) of oneself required to do the most straightforward things (correct a student; teach the difference between fact and opinion, e.g.).


P. M. Doolan said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly Chris. I teach in a school where every teacher has a laptop and every student has a laptop turned on all the time. Our classrooms are known as "blended environments" where teaching happens in a hybrid way - part human and part machine. We have had to turn off the internet during lunchbreaks, so students will actually talk to each other face to face.
The idea that digital natives can multi-task is nonsense. There are efficent ways of working (one thing at a time) and inefficent ways of working, which go by the euphemism "multitasking". Boys in particular are bad at multitasking.
A recent study at Stanford University seems to indicate that those who multitask most often are even worse than those who seldom multitask - the inverse of practise makes perfect.

ChrisJ said...


It's especially difficult because it's such an article of faith in some circles.