Category Archives: What I’m Reading

Simple Truth: Your Attention Has Been Hijacked.

Here’s an interesting confession from a guy who has been a tech enthusiast for a long while:  I HATE smartphones. 

Like legitimately hate them.

My animosity towards them has been growing and growing over time.  It started when I caught myself laying in bed every night and opening Instagram to see whether anyone had liked the photos of my daughter that I used to share there regularly.

I’d anxiously wait for the number of new notifications to be updated — and often, I’d be upset that I didn’t get as many notifications as I wanted to.  I really felt ignored at times, trying to figure out why some people would have 60 or 70 or 80 likes on pictures of their kids and I’d have four.

Then, I’d start looking at the people in my network who had liked the pictures of OTHER people in my network.  I’d see that people I considered friends were actively liking content shared by each other, but they never seemed to like or favorite content shared by me.  “They are shunning me,” I’d think.

I’d even play games where I’d go in and like and favorite pictures with increasing regularity.  “Look, I’m here and I’m saying I like your content!” I’d think every time I’d drop a like or a comment on pictures of other people’s kids.  And then I’d wait to see if they’d reciprocate — reloading my stream tons of times each night to see if anyone had noticed me.

If they did, I’d go to bed relieved.  If they didn’t, I’d go to bed feeling sad.

How crazy is that?!

Only adding to my animosity towards phones has been the impact that they have had on the people around me. 

I’m a pretty social guy.  I love being with and around others and engaging in deep conversations with them.  But I started to notice that every time I was with other people in a physical location, there were fewer and fewer sustained conversations because people were CONSTANTLY checking their iPhones or their SMART Watches.

Heck — a few years back, I ponied up a bunch of cash and went to ISTE and couldn’t BELIEVE how little attendees actually interacted with the people they were sitting with.  At one point, I was taking a break in a seating area on a really comfortable couch.  There were ten other people in the same area.  None of them looked up from their devices a single time.

I see the same trends in my family life, too.  Our living rooms — places where we used to gather to connect and to laugh and to enjoy — have grown increasingly quiet as people pull out their phones and sift through their streams instead of invest in each other.

That pattern has strained the relationships that I have with people in my life who pull out their phones the most often.  I just don’t enjoy being around them anymore because I know they are going to turn away from me and turn towards their devices every time that we are together.  Seeing their phone out makes me resent them — and, given how frequently they keep doing it, I’m not sure they even care.

Here’s what’s REALLY evil:  The people who are designing social apps are TRYING to “hijack” your attention.

Need proof?  Check out the details in this article on the Guardian.

Did you know that app designers are attending $1,700 seminars on how to “manipulate people into the habitual use of their products”?  Does knowing that the person responsible for the next update of your app has probably studied the role that anticipation and craving and triggers play in the human mind — and are intentionally using that knowledge to develop features that take advantage of those inner needs and impulses.

And can you spot the built in features of the social apps that you use the most frequently that exploit your inner needs and impulses?

Here’s one:  The “drag to refresh” feature on so many of your favorite social services is intentional.  From a purely technical standpoint, you could see your new notifications immediately when you open an app, but by requiring a drag to refresh, app designers are manipulating your need for anticipation.  It’s like the feeling you get when you pull a handle on a slot machine.  You can’t wait to see what comes next — and because that anticipation is so strong, you are likely to KEEP dragging to refresh all day long.

Sometimes, you’ll be disappointed because you won’t have any new notifications.  That will cause angst.  You’ll work harder to create and to share content in those social spaces that people WILL like and share.

Other times, you’ll hit the jackpot.  A post will take off and you’ll see it shared and liked over and over again.  And every time that you drag to refresh, you’ll feel the rush that comes along with seeing dozens of new notifications.

Either way, you’ll keep coming back to your social service.

You’re a digital moth, y’all.  And drag to refresh is the flame.

#sheesh

Should we blame social services for trying to turn you into a habitual user?  

Of course not.  They are creating a product that they need to profit from.  If they didn’t think through how to best capture your attention, they wouldn’t be acting in their own interest.

But we should be aware of the fact that they ARE trying to manipulate your attention — and their goals have nothing to do with helping you to be a more complete person.

So what are the solutions?

Here are mine:

(1). You’ll never see me checking any social apps on my phone while we are together:  That’s a promise I made a few years back to the people in my lives.  I may pull my phone out to check the time or answer a call from my kid — but even then, I’ll tell you what I’m doing so that you know that you are more important to me than any social stream that I may be swimming in.  We owe that to each other.

(2).  I’m uninstalling MOST social apps from my phone:  The challenge with social apps is that we use them most frequently while we are on our phones.  Here’s why that’s a problem:  Our phones are almost always with us.

Hanging out on the couch with your partner and/or your kids at the end of a long day?  You probably have your phone with you, too.  Sitting at Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you haven’t seen in six months?  You probably have your phone with you, too.  Visiting with friends who you value at a local brewery?  You probably have your phone with you, too.

So the times when you should be the MOST present are also the times when you have a device full of services that are trying to pull you away.  And given that it’s difficult to resist the tricks being used to manipulate you into using those services, you are far more likely to allow your attention to be hijacked — and by default, to turn away from the people who you are physically present with.

But if there aren’t any social apps on your phone, that social interruption can’t happen. Better yet, over time you will rethink your relationship with your device.  You won’t see it as a tool that feeds your need for anticipation or craving or triggers. It will be easier to ignore if it isn’t the primary source of reward and anticipation and need and craving in your life anymore.

I’ll always keep Twitter on my phone.  That’s because it is a place where people reach out to me with questions about the professional work that I do.  But I don’t need Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or Untappd on my phone anymore.  Those are purely social services to me — and in order to prioritize the social interactions that I have with the people around me, I’m going to intentionally turn away from having similar interactions with people on my my phone.

Does that mean I won’t use social services at all?

Nope.  It just means that I’ll have to dig my computer out to participate in those spaces — something I’m far less likely to do when I’m on the couch with my kid or at the bar with my friends.  I’ve got Twitter open right now in a tab on my browser — but I’m also sitting alone in the back of a Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery banging away at the keys on my computer.  If my attention is hijacked, it isn’t being stolen from people that I care the most about.

(3). I’m going to nudge the people in my life — my peers, my relatives, my students — to take the same actions.  I’m going to teach them about the manipulative design features in social services that are pulling them away from one another.  I’m going to encourage them to think through the consequences of divided attention — on their own happiness, on their relationships with other people, on their ability to learn.

I’m going to ask them to think about whether or not it is ethical for companies to design products that intentionally leverage human behaviors to steal their time and attention without being explicitly clear about their intentions.

These are conversations that we need to be having.  Otherwise, divided attention and intentional manipulation through app design become the new normal.

And I’m not OK with that.

Does any of this make sense to you?

______________________________

Related Radical Reads:

Banning Smartphones in Class May Be the BEST BYOD Policy

Are YOU Teaching Students about Attentional Blink?

I’m Going “Topless” in 2015

Banning Phones in Class Might be the BEST BYOD Policy.

A recent report  from , and the University of Texas at Austin has me questioning my professional decision last year to allow students to bring their cell phones to my classroom.

In Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (summary, full report), Ward, Duke, Gneezy and Bos argue something that I’ll bet all of us have experienced:  When your phone is present, your brain is not because you are constantly wondering what is happening in/on your device.  The urge to check your phone — to look for new likes or favorites in social media spaces, to answer the latest email and/or text message that has landed in your inbox, to check your news feeds for the latest celebrity blunder or political disaster or blockbuster trade — can be impossible to resist even when you are determined to attend to the world around you.

Specifically, Ward and her colleagues found that the presence of smartphones — whether they are turned on or turned off — had a negative impact on the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in their study.  

Working memory is the ability of an individual to select, maintain, and process information relevant to current tasks and/or goals. Fluid intelligence is the ability of an individual to understand and solve novel problems.

Another finding was that the working memory and fluid intelligence of participants in Ward’s study increased consistently as their phones were put in locations that were less visible and accessible.  Participants who were asked to put their phones in their pockets or their purses did better on tasks requiring high levels of working memory and fluid intelligence than participants who could see their phones.  Participants who were asked to leave their phones in another room, however, did the best on those same tasks.

Figure

What’s interesting is that participants could not detect the impact that the presence of their smartphone was having on both their working memory or their fluid intelligence.

When asked, participants in each of the three control groups reported that (1). they weren’t thinking about their phones and that (2). the presence of their phones had no impact on their performance.  Evidence from each experiment, though, tells a completely different story.  “This contrast between perceived influence and actual performance,” writes Ward and her colleagues, “suggests that participants failed to anticipate or acknowledge the cognitive consequences associated with the mere presence of their phones.”

What’s also interesting is that working memory and fluid intelligence were impacted the MOST in participants who reported high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones.

Stated more simply, the participants who did the worst on the tasks designed to test working memory and fluid intelligence were the ones who reported the highest level of agreements with statements like “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cellphone” and ““Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.”

Ward and her team make a few recommendations and draw a few conclusions at the end of their study.  Perhaps most importantly, they note that the only strategy that worked to mitigate the impact that smartphones have on working memory and fluid intelligence was separation from the device.  Their testing showed that participants still struggled with working memory and fluid intelligence even when utilizing common mitigation practices like turning devices off, leaving them screen-down on tabletops, or leaving them in pockets or purses.

They also suggest that their research is specific to smartphones only — primarily because of our persistent and complex relationships with our phones.  “The role of dependence in determining mere presence effects suggests that similar cognitive costs would not be incurred by the presence of just any product, device, or even phone,” they write.  “We submit that few, if any, stimuli are both so personally relevant and so perpetually present as consumers’ own smartphones.”

So what does all of this mean for classroom teachers?  Draw your own conclusions, but I’m thinking that the BEST BYOD policy might just be to ban smartphones from our classrooms in most circumstances.  

I know.  That feels like blasphemy, doesn’t it?  Schools have raced to embrace technology at every turn.  We know full well that digital tools can make incredible things possible in our classrooms.  Students can ask and answer their own questions using digital tools.  They can connect to new information and individuals, find partners to think with and learn from, and direct and document their own learning using devices.  They are excited about their phones — and we figure we can leverage that excitement to do great things.

Just as importantly, we bear at least SOME responsibility for teaching kids to use their own devices productively, don’t we?  If our kids don’t recognize the power sitting in their pockets, backpacks and purses, we are failing them — and we can’t just assume that kids will automatically figure out ways to leverage their phones for learning on their own.  That’s the kind of expertise that WE can bring to the table and pass on to our students.

But here’s the thing:  We are also failing our students if we don’t help them to recognize how to mitigate the negative impacts that those exact same devices have on our lives.  

As educators, we tend to give technology the benefit of the doubt, assuming that more technology is always a good thing.  Ward’s study proves that’s not always true — and we owe it to our kids to help them see that sometimes — particularly in spaces where working memory and fluid intelligence are important factors for being successful (read: classrooms), the best plan for maximizing your ability to concentrate and to develop strategies and to find novel solutions is to leave your smartphone in your locker unless it is absolutely necessary for whatever task you are trying to complete.

In the end, that may just be the MOST important lesson that we can teach our kids about their personal devices.

Need some specific recommendations?  Try these:

  • Revise your BYOD policy.  Make sure that it explains that smartphones will be allowed in classrooms only on an as-needed basis.
  • Start a conversation about Ward’s research with everyone (parents, students, teachers) in your school community.  Emphasize the importance of working memory and fluid intelligence to classroom success.  Detail the positive impact that separation from smartphones has on working memory and fluid intelligence — particularly for people who report high levels of dependence on and emotional attachment to their phones (read: students of darn near any age.)
  • Begin recommending to parents interested in providing their children with devices that they invest in Chromebooks and/or tablets instead of smartphones.
  • Remind everyone in your school community that technology isn’t ALWAYS additive and encourage everyone to think more deliberately about the costs of the technology used in your classrooms.

 

 

Does Your School have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

A few weeks back, I shared the story of Carl, a principal friend of mine who was frustrated with the pockets of innovation in his building.

While he knew that good work was happening at all grade levels and in all subject areas in his school, that work was inconsistent.  Some teachers were running with technology integration but ignoring a school-wide reading program.  Others had made PBIS work on their teams or in their classrooms, but did little to integrate the 4Cs into their day-to-day instruction.

My push back to Carl was simple:  Pockets of innovation are almost always evidence of a lack of focus in a school building.  Carl’s faculty wasn’t being resistant by letting important school-wide initiatives fall by the wayside. They just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to make several different significant changes at one time and had decided to prioritize some practices while tabling others.

That’s a survival strategy, y’all.

So what can YOU do to avoid falling into the same trap?  Start by stealing an idea from Warren Buffet and developing an Avoid at All Cost list!

Here’s how:

1).  Make a list of 25 things that your school is currently working on — or that you anticipate working on over the next few years.

Include everything that matters to you and/or your district.  Are you rolling out new devices?  Has your state mandated new diagnostic testing for students in specific grade levels?  Are the NGSS science standards pushing their way into conversations in your district?  Is your school tinkering with intervention or enrichment periods?  Write it all down.  And then have your teachers review it to be sure you haven’t inadvertently missed anything.

2). Circle the five most important items that you find on your current list of projects, programs and priorities.  

Are some of the projects, programs and priorities listed in step one more important than others?  Why?  How do you know?  Which ones are valued by classroom teachers?  Which will have the most direct benefit on student learning?  Are some mandates that can’t be ignored?  Do some have the support of the communities that you serve?  Is your school uniquely suited to implement some initiatives over others?  Structure conversations — within learning teams, during leadership meetings, with parents and students — to get feedback about your five priorities.

3). Invest EVERYTHING into moving forward on your five most important priorities.

Now truly invest in your priorities.  Every purchase that you make should have a direct connection to one of your five priorities.  Every scheduling decision that you make should be tied to one of your five priorities.  Every faculty meeting that you have, every professional development session that you provide, and every message that you share with your parents, teachers and students should focus on one of your five priorities.  Practice what Doug Reeves calls lifeguard leadership and keep your attention on the things that really matter.

4). Turn the remaining 20 items that you have been working on into an Avoid at All Costs list.

The real mistake that schools make when trying to drive change is focusing on too many different projects all at the same time.  That makes every single one of the remaining items on the list you generated in step one a potential pitfall.  Sure, they matter — but when everything becomes a priority, nothing gets done.

So make it clear to everyone in your school community that those items are to be avoided at all costs until the five priorities you settled on in step two have become a part of the fabric of your school.  No matter how much potential you see in the remaining 20 items brainstormed in your original list, you have to push them completely aside if you are truly setting priorities.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?  

The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward isn’t just identifying a small handful of priorities.  The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward is identifying a small handful of priorities AND actively pushing against everything else that threatens to draw your collective time and attention away from the things that matter most.  Developing an Avoid at All Costs list can help you to do just that.

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Related Radical Reads:

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

School Leadership is a lot Like Lifeguarding

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

Making Room for Uncertainty in the Required Curriculum

Poking through my feed reader this morning, I stumbled across a Mindshift KQED article that I think every educator ought to read.

Titled How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty, it makes a simple argument:  Instruction centered on facts that have already been settled fails today’s students.  “Without insight into the holes in our knowledge,” author Linda Flanagan writes, “students mistakenly believe that some subjects are closed. They lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit.”

Slide - Scientific Discovery

I worry about that argument because I’m held accountable for teaching a massive curriculum that is slam-packed full of settled facts.

While I believe in the importance of developing students who are willing to grope and probe and poke their way through moments of uncertainty — who are as comfortable NOT knowing as they are with having the right answers — the simple truth is that facilitating experiences that allow students to wrestle with uncertainty takes time that I just don’t have.  If moments of genuine discovery are going to make their way into my classroom, something has to give — and that ‘something’ is going to end up being content that is currently listed in my ‘required’ curriculum.

And THAT’s what drives me nuts about being a classroom teacher in today’s world.

There’s a constant tension between what we SAY we want our students to know and be able to do and what we LIST as priorities in our mandated pacing guides.  Almost twenty years into the 21st Century, we continue give lip service to the importance of things like creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, but we create no real space for that kind of content in our school, district and/or state curricula guides.  Worse yet, we do nothing to assess those skills.  Instead, we are still holding students and schools accountable for nothing more than the mastery of settled facts.

That has to change.  Plain and simple.

#truDATchat

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Related Radical Reads:

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year.

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

Bulldozing the Forests

The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some brainstorming about Design Thinking with John Spencer — a thinker and a friend that I greatly admire.  During the course of the conversation, I asked John why he thought that Design Thinking should play a role in modern classrooms.  His answer was a huge a-ha moment for me:

“Design thinking builds grit by giving a lot of slack.  We have this idea that perseverance comes form a buckle down and get it done mentality.  Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  John’s right:  We DO define grit as the ability to “buckle down and get it done,” don’t we?  

I’m not sure if that definition is a result of our compulsive obsession with bootstraps, our one-time belief that hard work is the Golden Ticket to Heaven, or the fact that we’ve been told time and again that instruction in our schools isn’t all that ‘rigorous’, but defining grit as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences is a poisonous myth that harms students because it suggests that learning has to be painful in order to be meaningful.

Worse yet, defining grittiness as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences provides built in excuses for educators who are unwilling to rethink their learning spaces and for policymakers who are unwilling to rethink the relevance of our required  curriculum.   Instead of working to improve our own practices, we peddle the notion that surviving bad lessons is a rite of intellectual passage.   “Sure, school is going to be boring,” we argue, “but it will be GOOD for you. It will teach you to work hard even when you AREN’T having fun — and I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t always about having fun!”

#sheeshchat

What if we believed that ALL learning should be fundamentally joyful?

Could students still learn to persist even if they were studying concepts that moved them in deep and meaningful ways?  Is it possible to demonstrate grittiness while constantly iterating on an idea that has the potential to change the world for the better? Aren’t people driven by passion MORE persistent than people who are driven by intimidation?

THAT’s Design Thinking in a nutshell, y’all.  It is built on the notion that people — regardless of who they are or what they know — can identify problems that are worth solving, propose and prototype solutions that are worth trying, and systematically improve on their thinking from one revision to the next.  Design Thinking sends the message that no final product is perfect and that dedicated learners are always ready to improve  everything that they create.

That sounds a heck of a lot like grittiness to me.

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Related Radical Reads:

How Gritty Are Today’s Learners?

Will You Be Relentless?

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action