Friday, April 3, 2015

Old Dog in the 21st Century

     Let me begin by admitting that I am the "old dog."  I began teaching back in a time when PCs did not exist.  Neither did iPhones or iPads or Twitter or Tumblr . . . you get the iDea.  Needless to say, I've spent the past couple of decades learning scads of "new tricks" -- enthusiastically, for the most part.  But when I first started hearing about "brain theory" and various hypotheses that technology is "changing the way our children think," my initial reaction as an old TEXAN dog was, well, "B.S."*
*Cow patty bingo -- Google it.

     A few years back, though, my colleagues and I started to notice something strange -- strange, even for middle school students.  (And that's saying something.)  When presented with a list of tasks, most students started with Task #1 and methodically worked their way down the list.  That's what "everyone" does, right?  Wrong.  Periodically, we'd spot a random student who would start his work with Task #4.  Or he would begin with Task #1 but then skip around, picking and choosing the order that he preferred.  What???

     At first, we teachers chalked it up to middle school squirreliness, something found in abundance on campuses nationwide.  But as we noted the phenomenon with increasing frequency, we began to suspect that something was afoot.  Why on Earth were children suddenly incapable of following a simple list of instructions?

     A glimmer of insight emerged one day in the library as I observed a student working at the computer with our librarian, Paulette Rodriguez (See

     "Eggbert,** stop clicking all over the screen," admonished Mrs. Rodriguez.  "Just go to the list of steps I've provided and follow them one by one."

     After class, as Paulette and I stood scratching our heads over the mysterious ways of the preteen, Paulette said, "Did you notice how he was clicking all over the screen?  It was as if he were playing a video game!"

     Had we been cartoon characters, that would have been the moment for light bulbs to appear above our heads.  Oh.  My.  Gosh.  After years and years of video gaming, some students are so oriented toward the "point and click" approach to seeking information, linear thinking is no longer their default strategy.  [The writer pauses a moment for readers to pick up their jaws.]

     Fast forward to third period Language Arts today.  Even before roll call, Alistair -- an 8th grader NOT renowned for his linear thinking -- fluttered around me, anxiously asking endless questions about every item on the starter list.  Mustering as much as patience as I could pretend in that moment to have, I requested that he go to his desk and begin doing Task #1.

     "I'll answer your questions in just a minute."

     After the usual start-of-class minutia, I called everyone's attention to the Smart Board rather than single out Alistair's confusion.  Pointing at Task #1, I announced, "This is where we will begin for today.  After completing that assignment, you will return your Chromebook to the cart, move on to Task #2 and, eventually, begin Task #3."

     Oh. My. Gosh.  Even as I was speaking, the realization hit me:  Alistair is one of those "nonlinear kids."    When he looks at the SmartBoard, he doesn't see a list of discrete tasks that he knows to tackle one by one;  he sees it like a gaming screen with neither a clue about where to begin nor an understanding that the tasks are presented in the order they are to be completed.  No WONDER he always seems to be on the wrong task!  

     The moral of this story?  Take a few minutes at the start of each school year to explain the concept of "following lists" to your students.  Something so obvious to "old dogs" like me might actually be a foreign concept to children born after Y2K.  Weird, huh?

**Children's names have been changed to protect the innocent.  All the adults are guilty as charged.