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How can a distracted generation learn anything?

Today’s students have a problem, and it’s not the one written on the board. They’re so accustomed to constant stimuli from smartphone apps and streaming platforms that they can’t concentrate in class.


Generations Z (ages 10-24) and Alpha (ages 0-9) were born into a world where algorithms keep them clicking, scrolling and swiping at a frenetic pace.


Now teachers have a problem too: how do you adapt the traditional curriculum to accommodate students raised by technology and is there a price for compromising on traditional education?


Attention, please


Early brain development is a complex topic, but over the last few years researchers around the world have raised concerns about the impact of smartphones and media multi-tasking on concentration.


“There is a growing body of evidence – that is, yes, not fully validated and can be argued against – but pretty clear evidence that technology, social media, immediate access to the internet and smartphones are hurting kids’ ability to focus,” says Dr Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech. “We are fundamentally changing the way kids think and the way their brains develop.”

《养育技术一代》(Raising Generation Tech)一书的作者泰勒博士(Dr Jim Taylor)说:“证据越来越多,是的,没有完全确认,可以争论,但有明确证据表明,信息技术、社交媒体,以及能随时即刻上网和使用智能手机正在伤害孩子的专注力。我们正在从根本上改变孩子们的思维方式和他们的大脑发育。”

Teachers have noticed too. “It’s a problem! The average teen has the attention span of about 28 seconds to begin with,” says Laura Schad, who teaches seventh and eighth graders (ages 12-14) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She says that while smartphones have clearly affected her students’ developing brains, training on how to tackle the issue is lacking: how education should evolve for digital-native students was not covered when she qualified in 2015.

老师们也注意到了这个问题。在宾夕法尼亚州费城教七、八年级学生(12-14岁)的教师沙德(Laura Schad)说:“这是一个问题!一般的青少年能集中注意力的持续时间本来只有约28秒。”她说,虽然智能手机明显影响了她的学生的大脑发育,但如何解决这个问题却缺乏相应的师资培训。她2015年取得教师资格时,所学的内容并未包括教育应该如何适应这些数字原生代的学生。

Tech’s effects are clearest in the most traditional school task, reading, especially as kids migrate from text-based digital media to image-heavy apps like Instagram and Snapchat.


“Students, now, seem to find it particularly exhausting to read complex or long text without regular breaks. In the past, students seemed to be accustomed to attending to a text for a longer period of time,” says Erica Swift, sixth-grade teacher at Herman Leimbach Elementary in Sacramento, California, not far from Silicon Valley. “You see their lack of stamina in them asking for breaks, talking to others instead of working, and even some just giving up on longer reading tasks.”

“现在,学生们似乎发现,阅读复杂或冗长的文章,中间没有休息,会特别疲惫。过去,学生们似乎习惯于长时间阅读一篇文本,”赫尔曼莱姆巴赫小学(Herman Leimbach Elementary)六年级教师斯威夫特(Erica Swift)说,该小学位于加利福尼亚州的萨克拉门托(Sacramento),距硅谷不远。“你会发现孩子缺乏学习持久力,他们要求多休息,阅读的时候交头接耳,阅读时间一长有些人甚至干脆放弃。”

Transposing the text to a device doesn’t help, indicating the problem runs deeper than preferences for screens over print.


Taylor explains that attention isn’t just a value in itself, but functions as the gateway to higher forms of learning – especially memory – which in turn leads to deeper comprehension. “Without the ability to pay attention to something, kids are not going to be able to process [information]. They’re not going to be able to consolidate it into memory, which means they’re not going to be able to interpret, analyse, synthesise, critique and come to some decision about the information,” he says.


The classroom of the future


When students can’t seem to pay attention to long lectures, many teachers simply hack lessons into smaller chunks. Gail Desler, the tech integration specialist for Elk Grove school district, where Swift’s school is located, says: “A common thread among teachers is that short is good.”

当学生似乎无法专注于时间长的授课时,许多老师就会把课程分成小块来教授。斯威夫特的学校所在的埃尔克格罗夫(Elk Grove)学区的技术整合专家德斯勒(Gail Desler)表示:“教师们的一个共识是,课程短效果就好。”

Desler also points to teachers who begin classes with mindfulness exercises or deploy meditation when students need to concentrate. One high school teacher in Salinas, California, uses the Calm app to help students meditate, but a 2013 study indicated any sort of “tech breaks” could counteract anxious urges to multitask.


Some teachers also choose to “meet kids where they are” on platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Asha Choksi, vice-president of global research and insights at educational publisher Pearson, gives the example of a teacher who films himself performing a science experiment, posts it to YouTube and then uses the video in class to illustrate material in the textbook, which can seem boring to students. Similarly, Schad keeps students on task through Instagram, reminding them about homework and upcoming field trips.

一些老师还选择在“孩子们已经使用的平台上和他们见面”,比如YouTube和Instagram。教育出版商培生集团(Pearson)负责全球研究和观察的副总裁乔克西(Asha Choksi)举了一个例子:一位教师将自己做的一项科学实验拍摄下来,将其发布到YouTube上,然后在课堂上用这段视频来演示教材中学生看来可能枯燥的内容。同样,沙德通过Instagram让学生关注学习任务,提醒他们作业和即将到来的田野考察。

These platforms especially extend attention when they reflect students’ interests. Desler praises teachers who do things like tie the history of Nazi propaganda to cyberbullying. “It’s about infusing relevant information into mandated curriculum in ways the students see themselves,” she says. “If you connect it to things happening here and now, then it enters their world and engages them.”


Meanwhile, specialised learning platforms like Flipgrid, which allows students to share videos of themselves giving presentations, help teachers engage students in their native media. A 2018 study from Pearson found that Gen Z students eschewed physical books, preferring video as a source of information second only to teachers. By meeting kids where they already engage and create, teachers can better capture attention.


Some school districts have standardised digital migration to platforms like Google Classroom, which allows students and parents to monitor grades and upcoming assignments, tracking performance to better understand where students are falling behind.

一些学区已经将数字化迁移统一到谷歌教室(Google Classroom)这样的平台上。该平台允许学生和家长监控学生的成绩和即将完成的作业,追踪学生的表现,以便更好地了解学生在哪些方面落后于众。

Technology can even help mend the damage it does to reading skills. Schad says at her school in Philadelphia, teachers use computers to target struggling students. The school’s preferred reading platform, Lexia, uses gamification to motivate participation. The programme also automatically splits up students based on performance, moving successful students to more advanced tasks offline while keeping struggling students engaged with digital exercises until they fully internalise the lesson. This targeted approach helps bridge the gap between students impacted to varying degrees by technology.


The US is a global leader in education technology, with edtech companies raising $1.45bn (£1.1bn) in 2018. But firms like Flipgrid and Lexia will increasingly face competition from abroad. The edtech industry in East Asia is booming, especially as US platforms like Knewton expand overseas, tapping into growing global interest in adapting classrooms to digital native students.



‘Blended learning’


Still, while some educators are embracing technology in the classroom, multiple studies have shown more traditional classrooms can be more successful. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics showed GCSE test scores improved when schools in Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester banned phones from class. Neuroscience professor William Klemm, author of The Learning Skills Cycle, points to a 2014 study that found taking notes in longhand helped students retain information better than using a laptop.

然而,尽管一些教育工作者在课堂上拥抱新科技,多项研究表明,更传统的课堂教学方法可能更有成效。2015年伦敦经济学院(London School of Economics)的一项研究表明,伯明翰、伦敦、莱斯特和曼彻斯特的学校禁止学生上课时使用手机,这些地区学生的普通中等教育证书(GCSE)考试成绩因而有所提高。《学习技能周期》(The Learning Skills Cycle)一书的作者、神经科学教授克莱姆(William Klemm)指出,2014年的一项研究发现,和用笔记本电脑记笔记相比,手写笔记更有助于学生记住信息。

Klemm also points out the dangers of chopping up lessons into small chunks, suggesting switching between small lessons too quickly could rob students of valuable comprehension. He says students need time to engage with a topic once the teacher introduces it before moving on.


Even many tech-forward educators find value in traditional methods and suggest a “blended learning” approach. “I've seen a lot of discussion among academics in recent years about whether the lecture format is a relic and should go the way of the dinosaurs,” says Katie Davis, associate professor in the University of Washington Information School. “I guess it comes down to whether you believe there are valuable skills involved in following a complex argument that is presented linearly in real-time.”

甚至许多支持新科技的教育工作者也发现了传统教学的价值,并建议采用“混合式学习”的方法。华盛顿大学教育学院(University of Washington College of Education)的兼职副教授及该大学数字青年实验室(UW Digital Youth Lab)创始成员戴维斯(Katie Davis)说:“我看到近年来学术界有很多讨论,是关于传统讲课的形式是否已是老古董,应该像恐龙一样灭绝。我猜这取决于你是否相信,参与一场实时的线性的复杂讨论可以获得有价值的技能。"

While Davis admits new media could provide valuable skills, she still believes lectures have their place.


Educators across the tech spectrum agree the teacher’s authority remains sacrosanct. Elizabeth Hoover, chief technology officer of public schools in Alexandria City, Virginia, works to enhance education in her district through technology, but she says she would never replace direct instruction from teachers.

新科技领域的教育工作者都认同教师的权威仍然是神圣不可侵犯的。弗吉尼亚州亚历山大市公立学校的首席技术官胡佛(Elizabeth Hoover)致力于通过信息科技提高她所在地区的教育水平,但她表示,她永远不会用信息科技取代教师的直接教学。

“The face-to-face interaction with the teacher is still the most important component in the classroom,” she says, favouring technology only when it enhances a lesson in ways impossible offline.


Schad also points out that many teachers rely on technology only because they don’t have sufficient resources offline. Programmes like Lexia wouldn’t be necessary if schools provided more funding for aides, who could free up teachers to concentrate on struggling students.


Philadelphia teacher Sophia Date, who teaches 12th grade social studies, also questions the impulse to fund tech over more teachers. “There is a huge push for technology in the classroom, but at times I think that it is done in the place of larger, more necessary reforms. Grant organisations are happy to give money for a set of tablets or laptops, but not willing to provide a salary for a teacher for a year,” she says.

在学校教授12年级社会研究课程的费城教师戴特(Sophia Date)也对花钱资助科技而非聘请更多教师的趋势提出了质疑。她说:“在课堂上对技术的推动是巨大的,但有时我认为钱应该用在更大范围、更必要的改革上。现在资助机构乐于出钱购买一套平板电脑或笔记本电脑,却不愿为一名教师提供一年的薪水。”

Date clarifies that equitable access to technology remains crucial to help close the gap for low-income students, but it cannot replace systemic change.


Learn to think


While technology undermines some aspects of education, it has also empowered students in unforeseen ways. “There is this view that young people are a bit apathetic, a little bit lazy, distracted by technology,” says Choksi of Pearson. “We actually really underestimate the role technology is playing in children’s education right now and the power it gives them over the way they learn.”


For instance, students impatient for educators to address questions are increasingly willing to seek answers for themselves. “They might be in algebra and go to YouTube to figure out how to solve a problem before going to a teacher or consulting a textbook,” Choksi says.


“That’s what you ultimately want with kids,” Swift adds. “You want them asking new questions, seeking new answers.”


Taylor points out that as information becomes ubiquitous, success is no longer about knowing the most. Instead, it’s the ability to think critically and creatively, ironically the very skills that digital media undermines by lowering attention spans.


“If you think of the Zuckerbergs and the Gates and the Sandbergs and all these people who became successful in the tech world,” he says, “it wasn’t because they could code; it was because they could think.”


Digital natives will continue to voraciously adopt new media. Teachers have no choice but to evolve, not only to ensure students can access and take advantage of new technologies, but to fundamentally educate students to succeed in a world constantly trying to distract them.

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