As COVID19 school closures continue, Florida is being held up to the nation as an example of how well internet based instruction can be done. Still, in almost daily briefings I receive about Florida’s schools, administrators and teachers are dealing with problems ranging from poor connectivity to students simply not showing up for online class. To say teachers, parents, and students everywhere are just trying to make the best of a nearly impossible situation would be the epitome of understatement.
Last week I decided to write about the downside of internet based instruction in an attempt to offer some balance to the idea that online school is the next best thing to being there. I am convinced it is not. Still, the internet does offer schools another tool to overcome the new hurdles we are all facing. In full disclosure, even since I posted last week, Trinitas has increased its online instruction for 9th – 12th grades. Most classes are now offering the option of meeting at least once a week online for some face-to-virtual-face time with instructors. Technology offers us a tool, and we are using it sparingly, cautiously. I suggested last week that the carryover from using the internet for entertainment will taint its use as a tool. Three detrimental effects particularly concern me as an administrator and teacher: passivity, shortened attention span, and diminished imagination.
To Work for is Better than to Receive
When school begins each fall, teachers can quickly identify the students who spent the summer sitting in front of a screen. They are passive and sometimes sullen. Children who cultivate a habit of receiving hours of images from a screen each day find it difficult to transition back to the work of learning. That is because learning requires students to be actively engaged, not passively receiving. The students who work to acquire knowledge and understanding will get for themselves the good gifts their teachers are giving them. Those who sit passively, expecting to be entertained, will be frustrated and will not acquire all that is being given them.
As Trinitas begins to use some screen time during this campus closure, we are doing so in a very limited way. A junior, for example, can expect five optional hours of screen instruction a week, not five hours a day. And that screen time is bent toward student engagement: it is their opportunity for discussion with teachers and classmates. In cases where only a video is used, it is for the purpose of inspiring the student to craft a creative response. Not perfect, but not merely entertainment or babysitting.
Parents can help their children become better students, not only during this campus closure, but when they come back to school as well, by limiting screen time—all screen time. Screen entertainment creates passivity, and passive students do not learn as well as active students.
Why Can’t Johnny Pay Attention?
The ever-shortening attention span is a problem for children and adults alike, and screens are the main culprit. We have all heard the anecdote of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, how the audience sat attentively for hours, fully engaged in the debate then took a short break for sustenance, and returned for hours more of the landmark arguments. Since then songs have been shortened to under three minutes, TV shows last less than thirty minutes, and Snapchat posts disappear almost before we grow weary of them. Children who have cultivated a steady appetite for swiping the screen every few seconds find it hard to sustain a thought long enough to form a good opinion of what they have heard or read—forget about developing an understanding.
Trinitas teachers have worked hard over the past few weeks to develop assignments that command students’ sustained attention in the presence of the many distractions they face outside the peaceful classroom environment. Parents can help their children become better students by engaging them in increasingly longer conversations, maintaining lengthy family reading times, and listening to lengthy musical compositions or lectures together. A student who can sustain attention and thought is a student who can learn.
Why Can’t Jane Solve Problems?
As the cliché “think outside the box” has become increasingly prevalent, we have lost our ability to do so in equal proportion. Why? We have replaced our imaginations with images conveniently supplied by the media we consume. There is little incentive to imagine what might be or give shape to our own thoughts through writing and speaking or making art or music when all of that comes so easily through a screen. Why do the work of reading Where the Red Fern Grows and trying to imagine for ourselves the fight between those big-hearted coon dogs and the devilish mountain lion when we could take the shortcut of just watching the movie? And there is the rub.
Trinitas wants students to develop imagination. Assignments that invite students to do the hard work of imagining for themselves require more work than multiple choice assignments on a screen. Where we are using online instruction, our aim is still to inspire some creative work. Parents can inspire imagination in their children by choosing books over movies and television shows, by choosing drawing, painting, and crafts over the tablet, and by playing board games instead of video games.
COVID19 has closed schools, and nothing we can do during this season will exactly replace classroom instruction. The internet certainly gives us a tool to help fill the gaps, but the habits we bring into online classrooms can take away the gains we might otherwise realize by using them. If we let the difficulties we are facing instruct us about the future, perhaps by God’s grace this strange season will be good for us somehow. May we all aspire to become less dependent on the screens in our lives and instead become thoughtful, creative, imaginative people who can sustain attention long enough to solve the world’s problems. Isn’t the future dependent upon our children becoming those kinds of people?