Don’t eat the marshmallow…answer the text instead.

Anytime a group of KIPP leaders or teachers gather around a table you are bound to hear the kind of near disaster stories that would make for great reality television.  Last week in Houston Nate Smalley (founder of Newark Collegiate) told a story which would not make the grade for Bravo but instead raised an important question about our work and culture..

 A while back, Nate arrived at school to find that he had left both his cell phone and laptop at home.   The oh **** feeling of being without his primary tools was almost overwhelming but negotiating traffic and losing hours from the day seemed untenable. 

After getting his office manager to send out a message to the staff that essentially said “if you want me, find me,” Nate dove into the day.

Nate proceeded to have what he called “the most productive day of the year.”   His meetings and interactions were richer and his to do list more checked off.  When he finally returned home he jumped on the waiting laptop to try to describe the day to his fellow Newark principals.

Two years ago we added texting to all of the GCP teachers’ phones.  It seemed like such a simple way to communicate seamlessly as our school grew larger.  Before long texting slid down the slippery slope from emergency communication about a kid crisis to in some cases the primary way we shared during the day.  In class changes and almost any break in the action (sometimes in the midst of the action) one of us was staring at a tiny screen and away from all the people around us.  I was one of the driving forces of this descent. 

Now I am struck by the fact that at KIPP Lynn teachers don’t text and no face to face conversation is interrupted by a glance at the phone. 

Many KIPP schools talk about “not eating the marshmallow” and explicitly teach the importance of delaying gratification.  Is our use of cell phones and laptops sending an opposing message?  Ulysses had to bind himself to the masts to resist the sirens; do we need to shut off our wifi and lock our phones in the desk in order to pay attention to our teachers and kids and parents?  I say we deliberately because just today I caught myself twice checking an email during an observation.

Nate told a second story with some terrifying implications.  I am paraphrasing but hopefully not to the degree of creating urban education legend.  His math teacher showed a youtube video to her class.  They watched with the kind of perfect slanting she hadn’t seen for a while.  Unsurprising right?  The kids were entertained by a funny video-hardly news.  The strange and perhaps troubling thing is that the video that captured their attention so completely was video of a math lesson.  Afterwards the kids agreed that their flesh and blood teacher was better than the grainy video.  So why pay better attention to the screen?

What’s going on here?   I don’t know the neuroscience or any of the science here actually; I do know that multiple school leaders share the experience of hosting a dance where the kids spend all night texting each other.  I do wonder how to teach, model, and measure the value of sustained attention.

A few readings and links connected at least tangentially to the subject:

Kim Marshal nails another principal attention disorder in his new book that he calls Hyperactive Principal Disorder.  I tried to write about my own struggles with the “disease” here:

Check out this program which shuts off your internet periodically to help you focus.

Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide-a really accessible and well written intro to the science of decision making. His blog has no explicit ties to education but there’s not a post without a connection to our work.  This post is a must read for anyone who talks about not eating the marshmallow because it describes what we should actually be teaching kids to do in order to delay gratification and it articulates why delaying gratification does not depend on developing an iron will.

Finally a quote from David Eggers in defense of the written word: “It’s too exciting and distracting online,” Eggers said. While print — especially long-form print — encourages hunkering down and cuddling up, online journalism fosters a kind of low-grade, perpetual ADD. Online, “there’s always some button that wants you to click to cat porn,” he said, as the audience laughed. “You try to read something, and it’s flashing, it’s telling you to go somewhere else.”


2 Responses to “Don’t eat the marshmallow…answer the text instead.”

  1. jsmith6 Says:

    I find myself relating to this post in way too many ways. While my work right now is outside a school, I spend much of it at a computer thinking about teaching and schools. Yet when doing this online, as opposed to face to face with other educators, I am CONSTANTLY torn away by more links. Even while reading this post, it took me way longer than it should have, as I found myself navigating to the links provided before completing the original post.

    It makes me wonder if there are reading strategies for online readings as opposed to print, and whether this is something we should be teaching students. Whether we like it or not, that’s the direction we’re headed, so how do we help students avoid the same ADD we suffer with, as users who are living through the transition?

    Most of our students at this point have never lived without internet, and will be going to college in a time when the majority of readings are provided online. In my grad program I have entire classes that don’t require any book purchases, but provide the readings all online. Will our students know how to read them strategically when what we provide in our classrooms is on paper?

    I totally understand the point about texting/emailing, but sometimes I wonder if we’re replacing face to face communication, or just adding to it. These conversations had through email, are they conversations that could be had in person, or are they conversations that would just not happen if we didn’t have/use email? Since I left GCP I no longer was able to have face-to-face conversations about students in the cafeteria, but now I can follow your blog and still have pieces of those conversations, as opposed to nothing. 🙂

    And I’m still not ready to give up texting…

  2. mrdolan Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and witty reply. Your question about what we should teach kids about reading given the nature of what they read/watch online is an EQ for all of us.

    Currently I am more persuaded by the evidence that multitasking is a myth. Just like driving reading while engaging in other communication or link jumping is a distracted endeavor. Paying attention for a long time to one thing is a much harder but more meaningful way to read and learn.

    I am open to hear what the other side looks like.

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