The start of a new school year is both exciting and extremely busy. At one of our faculty meetings in late August, I asked that we remember how important it is to unplug and talk, unwind and walk. This is perhaps easier advised than accomplished.
Unplug and Talk, Unwind and Walk
The start of a new school year is both exciting and extremely busy. At one of our faculty meetings in late August, I asked that we remember how important it is to unplug and talk, unwind and walk. This is perhaps easier advised than accomplished. The intentionality required to actually step away from devices and step into conversation or engage in moments of solitude was made more powerfully clear to me this summer as I read our Middle School faculty selection, Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age over the summer months. Turkle is a researcher at MIT and is particularly interested in the development of the adolescent mind. Here is a link to her book: Reclaiming Conversation
In recent years, her work has turned toward the effects of technology and media on the developing brain and she has followed cohorts of young people, the first generation of children to have smartphones, as they move into their first jobs. Of this cohort, she writes they are “Intelligent and creative...but employers report that they come to work with unexpected phobias and anxieties. They don’t know how to begin and end conversations. They had a hard time with eye contact” (28). One anecdote she shares of a high school senior keenly illustrates this anxiety: “...he fears any conversation that he cannot edit and revise... For later in life I’ll need to learn how to have a conversation, learn how to find common ground. Someday, someday soon, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn to have a conversation’” (28). How is it that a high school senior, on his way to college, fears what may have been considered a mundane part of the day of an average adult: conversation with other adults? He is not alone. Turkle, and others before her, have written of a growing unease with in-person engagement and a startling drop in empathy.
Turkle’s book offers clues as to why it is young people today are stricken with fear about face-to-face interaction and may struggle to develop empathy. She suggests the very skills necessary to be a successful employee are those skill that require patience to master, and patience is not honed through life lived online. For example, she explains “conversation unfolds slowly” while the technological world is incredibly fast-paced, even frantic in its incessant stream of information and stimuli” (71). She and others argue that we have unintentionally robbed children of one of the most critical building blocks for deliberate, slow, and deep thinking: boredom. “Parents worry that downtime is boredom and see it as a waste of time. But childhood boredom is a driver. It sparks imagination. It builds up inner emotional resources” (71). Child psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott has studied boredom in children and found the more capacity a child has for boredom – the ability to play or think while alone – the better overall psychological health that child enjoys. Interfering with the natural development of managing boredom and the solitude and space for imagining and pondering in provides, inhibits a child’s neurological growth and well-being.
This is but the tip of the argument; there is a great deal more she discusses and perhaps some of it we would not all agree upon. Please consider reading the book and deciding for yourself whether she is correct in her many assertions. Our faculty began and will continue to discuss Turkle’s findings and her recommendations for our response. One thing we have determined is that we must more purposefully use technology in our approach to instruction and student learning. We have scaled back our use of the iPad a bit this year and are asking very pointed questions of ourselves when it comes to our use of digital media and electronic devices. Is it necessary? Is this technological approach preferred to a more traditional approach? If so, why? Turkle writes that in many schools “there is pressure to use technology in classrooms in ways that make conversation nearly impossible. Interestingly, this technology is often presented as supporting student engagement.” We ask, engagement in what? If the answer is not with each other or with deep learning, we reconsider the approach. We are indeed extremely fortunate to have such options, to be empowered to make critical decisions for the well-being and optimal learning of our students.
I do hope you will join us in our exploration of the role conversation plays in developing empathy and cultivating a mindset for lifelong success by perusing Turkle’s book. Please look for an invitation soon to a book talk to happen on campus, of course, in person!
I look forward to seeing you at Thursday’s Back-to-School Night in Middle School, which begins at 6:15 p.m. in the Berry Performing Arts Center Lobby.