Busy before productive
How do kids learn how to Get Things Done when they have so few things worth doing? One of the challenges that’s dominated our 1:1 rollout has been the “distraction” potential of laptops for our middle school students. I’m the tech guy, so I naturally view this as a “Man, this Bag of Gold sure is heavy!” sort of problem, but I do understand the concerns. It’s a real phenomenon, just as it would be if you handed any group of students the incredible resources of a modern computer and the (relatively) unfiltered Internet. Combined with the blunt-spatula of age-locked grades, there are numerous examples of 12 year olds who take home their now laptop and fall into clearly negative habits.
The problem with assessing how much of a problem any particular behavior is for an individual student, is that they generally lack both the temperament for delayed gratification and an internal, personal hierarchy of value that would allow them to distinguish productive from simply busy.
This is the weirdness of the academic day that flies up at me when viewed through the lens of this conversation about “wasting time” with laptops. Most adults over 30 learned how to integrate the chewy jumble of distraction, accessibility, resources and connectedness that we’re calling “technology” after they had established some framework for Getting Things Done. (I’m using that phrase without real adherence to the GTD process, but as a reference the entire productivity lifecycle, specifically starting with “what should I be doing?”) For parents of adolescents, that transition might have happened once they were already ensconced in a work-environment, or at least some form of higher ed. At the moment of introduction, they were able to slot new tech into disjoint categories; “productive” and “pleasurable”, “effective” and “escapist.”
When parents and teachers bemoan the fact that students can’t make those same easy distinctions, I think they forget that students encountering this tech haven’t yet partitioned the world into discrete chunks. Middle school is filled with developmental milestones, the type discussed in faculty meetings and parent conferences, that focus on a student’s ability to put their head down and power through. “Academic success” often means developing the ability to work through a disjointed set of arbitrary tasks with dubious purpose. For better or worse, this is the core skill of “playing school” for most students, and adolescents are at the very beginning of developing that sorting schema. When you add the fractal distraction of, say, THE INTERNET into the mix, of course they’re going to lose more hours!
My day job’s response to this is to try to bootstrap kids to a higher level of personal awareness and metacognition. Use time-managment and productivity tools to monitor their own work habits. Let the data talk about when time spent on tvtropes transitions from “interesting” to “distracting” to “wormhole.” Put that data in the hands of kids and parents, monitor the computer use for BOTH parties, and hopefully build some mutually productive conversations.
My secret hope is that more kids put off building those rigid partions, and open up some more pathways for “success” than being the fastest task-processer in the batch. Help students curtail the number of hours they’re spend being simply busy, so that they can start the real work of discovering ideas and activities that engage more of their emerging selves.