By Dhara Baiden
I have been a 7th grade English teacher for six years, and know there are many children in my classroom that have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) due to a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some are on drugs and some aren’t; in the case of those who aren’t, good luck to the other 28 kids in the class who are trying to learn anything. When there is a child – or a few children – in the class who are disruptive by not staying in their seats, blurting out answers, telling other kids who make an error that they’re stupid, or who simply can’t sit still with their mouths closed, everyone is negatively affected. The productive learning environment is poisoned by anyone who can’t adhere to classroom decorum. As a result, a common question amongst teachers, administrators, and psychological professionals in a school is, “Why do so many kids have ADD in the first place?” When we were in school there was no such thing—and if there was, it certainly did not exist at the massive levels it does now. Kids today will very casually discuss their Ritalin, especially if they forgot to take it that morning and need to go to the school nurse to pop their pill. What’s going on?
David P. Goldman, in his article “How America Made Its Children Crazy” suggests that we look for our answer to ADD by looking back to the 1960s with the “limitless opportunities for gratification, abetted by ever-more-realistic (and ever-more violent and perverse) computer simulations.” Due at least in part to computers, “attention spans [have] shortened drastically.” Today, kids have this computerized immediate gratification everywhere—even in their pockets where they have games, texting, email, and countless computer applications on their phones. How un-cool to read, or sit and have a ponderous debate with a friend, when there is always something to provide electronic stimulation. In a world like that, where people (and kids) immediately transition from one stimulus to another, when is there time to develop an attention span?
Then, to seemingly add fuel to the fire, our society keeps increasing the levels of computerization in the very place attention spans should be developed: schools. Goldman says that schools used to be the place where students went to “learn to learn,” to develop skills in concentration and thinking, and to become people who are clever and tenacious. Instead, now “our children do not read; they only surf. They do not write; they only text. They do not plan and strategize in games; they react to visual and aural stimuli….” I see this every day in my classroom. I work in a district that gives every child in 6th grade through 12th grade a netbook computer, and teachers are expected to conduct much of their classes in an online virtual learning environment. No matter how impressive the intent, instead of spending time thinking critically and analyzing, students spend their time either playing games or troubleshooting technology problems (a document doesn’t save, the netbook runs out of batteries right as an assignment is being submitted, a screen is cracked, a key fell off the keyboard, the internet isn’t working…). In a society where students already lack the discipline of focus and attentiveness, technology in schools seems to be making it worse. Kids are distracted by the very technology that is supposed to be aiding their learning.
Why are we computerizing education in the first place? According to Matt Richtel, “Schools are being motivated by a blind faith in technology and an overemphasis on digital skills.” He reports that critics believe schools jumped on the technology bandwagon before any research was done to prove its benefit. That is a major risk, since not only is equipping a school with technology expensive for taxpayers, but if the technology is not positively affecting education then America’s kids are not going to be prepared for the critical-thinking skills required for the global workplace. Ironically, Richtel reports, “The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.” Their kids attend the Waldorf School, which “believes in a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.” Those kids are learning the skills that will help them succeed in the future, and they are doing it without the technology their parents are using to change the world. Technology can be introduced later; what is needed in youth is the foundational skills of problem-solving, critical-thinking, and analyzing—and being able to focus while doing so.
Regarding the ADD drugs, Alan Sroufe writes, “To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve.” Not surprisingly, drugs are not the answer. But when are we going to put the leg-work in to see what is?
Note: Healthy eating plays an important part not only in children’s health but in their success in school. Watch for an article coming soon.
Goldman, David P. (2012). “How American Made Its Children Crazy.” Retrieved from http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/NA31Dj01.html
Richtel, Matt (2011). “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute.” Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all
Richtel, Matt (2011). “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.” Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/technology/technology-in-schools-faces-questions-on-value.html?_r=2&hp=&pagewanted=all