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Should Teachers Change How They Teach Media Savvy Kids?

November 05, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Common Sense News, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom, Technology Integration

Our survey on the impact of digital media on students begs the question: Is it educators’ teaching styles or youth’s habits that need to change?

In May 2012 we surveyed 685 middle and high school teachers to hear their perspectives on how students’ increasing use of digital media has affected their academic performance. Although some questions garnered more varied results than others, 71 percent of those surveyed agreed that entertainment media use—which includes television, music, video games, texting, iPods, cell phone games, computer programs, social networking sites, apps, online videos, and websites students use for fun—has had negative effects on students’ attention span. Among the various forms of media that today’s youth are consuming, educators pointed to texting and video games as the most troublesome, and distractibility and instant gratification as the biggest culprits.

“Students have been both helped and hurt by the instant access to information. Being able to ‘Google’ answers to questions provides much quicker access, but it also makes students less comfortable wrestling with uncertainty or curiosity,” said one elementary school teacher who took part in the survey, available in full online. “The instant rewards of video games have made activities that require depth of commitment much harder for the kids,” said another participating middle school math teacher.

Many teachers voiced that, not only do they have to work harder to gain, and maintain, students’ attention, but that being an “entertainer” is now a part of their everyday job. “I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said English teacher of 14 years Hope Molina-Porter to Matt Richtel of the New York Times. “I’m tap dancing all over the place,” agreed fourth grade teacher Dave Mendell. “The more I stand in front of class, the easier it is to lose them.”

It’s important to keep in mind that the results are merely a gauge of teachers’ insights and not a rigorous study of cause and effect. “However,” as the survey team notes, “it does surface some important and broadly held concerns of the nation’s teachers.”

This balance between entertainment and engagement appears to be the crux of the issue. It’s no surprise that many teachers who have more experience in the classroom are reporting a change in learning styles. The technological advancements we’ve seen in the last ten years alone are vast, and have redefined the way youth, especially those who have grown up with these digital tools, collect and process information. It appears there may be a different kind of “digital divide” occurring in the classroom, one that has caused experts to question if it is today’s teaching styles that need reevaluation, and not youth’s media habits.

Cathy Davidson, researcher and co-founder of HASTAC, an organization dedicated to the “future of thinking in a digital age,” has been a vocal proponent of reforming the classroom. She published a response to Richtel’s article on the organization’s website.

It's not our job … in 2012 to teach them how to use calculators or an abacus:  it is our job in 2012 to teach students now for the challenges of their lives--in a historical time, in a historical place.  It is our job to help them learn how to be successful adults in their future; it is not our job to preserve for them some nostalgic vision of the future that is clearly past.

Associate director for the Pew Research Center Kristen Purcell had a similar response. She told Richtel, “What we’re labeling as ‘distraction,’ some see as a failure of adults to see how these kids process information. They’re not saying distraction is good but that the label of ‘distraction’ is a judgment of this generation.”

The responses of the teachers surveyed reveal what teaching at a historical moment of massive change looks like. In most things we do, whether crossing the street, interpreting a story, or teaching, we draw on our store of personal history to make sense of it. Teachers today are naturally drawing from their own experience in a classroom when teaching—yet that classroom is quickly disappearing. As a former UK teacher now with Mozilla, Doug Belshaw recently wrote,  “The ability to sit still and concentrate for three hours on examination questions testing feats of memory does not sound to me like a 21st century skill.” Indeed.

Education in modern society, as James Mulhern wrote in “A History of Education,” is a form of social inculcation; it infuses in children a society’s key philosophies, prepares them for the structure of a later work life, and “socializes” them to the expectations of the society in which they live.  Yet the classroom Mulhern refers to was designed for a worker who was about to embark on a newly industrialized workplace of rote actions on an assembly line, not a world in which memory is no longer as central when you can “Google” the answer, when teamwork has replaced rows of workers in the secretary pool or the factory floor, and when the literacy we need today is more often how to filter information and use it smartly—knowing what information to let in, how to find it, and how to filter it.

Educators, what do you think about these study results? Have you seen similar behavior in the classroom, or have you found yourself trying to adapt to a media-savvy generation’s learning habits? We’d love for you to share your thoughts and comments. After all, your perspective is the key to meeting students where they are, and turning that insight into engagement.