December 16, 2010
Today's blog comes from Kim Farris-Berg, Coordinator for the Students Speak Out Project.
An increasingly prevalent mode-of-operation in policymaking is to enact laws that infantilize teens, when in fact they are young adults who are quite capable of making adult-like decisions. One example of where this is seen now is in state proposals to increase the driving age to 18. Those advancing ideas like this argue, "It's not your teens' fault, it's their faulty brains! We must protect them from themselves!" Possibly as a result of choices like this, teens are being treated as children throughout society, including in their own families. If you're doubting me, check out this ABC News Video about parents of job-seeking college graduates seeking to negotiate salaries and participate in performance reviews. You'll also see that major businesses are indulging this.
But no existing research confirms (pdf) a "causal relationship between the properties of the teen brain being examined and the problems we see in teens", argues Robert Epstein, a psychologist and professor at the University of California San Diego who wrote The Case Against Adolescence. Epstein lays out evidence that teens, while still developing, are capable of plenty. Perhaps today's teens are not as capable as they could be, however, because we've not given them the opportunity to act as the young adults they are. Epstein's theory is that if we abolished "adolescence" (in the past, he argues, there was no such stage), and gave teens more responsibility, earlier, teens today would not be experiencing the same level of turmoil (drugs, gangs, dropping out, depression and other issues). Other nations accomplish exactly this. Citizens League joins Epstein in wondering: if we did this, what would teens be motivated to achieve, both in education and elsewhere?
It's with this in mind that I read the widely circulated November 21 New York Times article titled,"Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction." The headline conveys that technology use is now to blame for many teens' failure to learn, and UC San Francisco brain research is brought out to emphasize the point: "Only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory." Again, this research is not causal. As much as this research could be used as an argument against tech, it seems to me it could be used as an argument against the factory-model way school is set-up today. Further, it could raise questions about the culture we've created for teens in general. With us helicoptering in school and home, keeping them in "go" mode, where's the chance for processing? We tend to dehumanize their experiences, take over their chances to practice for adulthood, and then wonder why they have trouble graduating from college, or why the rates of adult "children" living with their parents are going up, or why they don't engage in public discourse.
Sean, a student described in the article, questioned if tech was the problem. "Video games don't make the hole; they fill it." He was seeking understanding of himself and his talents as well as a means for improving his skills, such as human connection and meaningful feedback. I had to wonder: If technology was the distraction from homework, then was the homework giving him these things? Once Sean became oriented and grounded in an interest in film-making, through technology, his commitment to school improved all around. So did his grades.
What if students' achievement could improve if we changed how we approach adolescence? I recently visited a number of schools trying this out. They've decided to include significant outdoor learning components in the curriculum. The goal is for young people to learn they have the capacity to survive and succeed with very little material need; to connect them to their adult capabilities. And there are some schools, such as Avalon High in St. Paul, giving students quite serious responsibilities. For one, students have a branch of school governance with legitimate power. With this power they self-enforce the rules. After all, they created many of them! Students also direct their own learning at Avalon. With this responsibility, they use technology to improve their learning; not distract from it.
As we increase our use of technology for learning we must keep this in mind. We could use tech to allow teens to connect themselves to a vast array of rich, human, adult-oriented experiences. Alternatively, we could put all our old worksheets and tests online, set up time and task charts, and later blame teens for not being interested in completing them.
Ultimately, teens choose whether or not to participate in anything: their learning, civic discussions, safe driving, responsible technology use, and more. If we desire "good" choices, then we need to start asking ourselves if we're infantilizing teens, or giving them the experiences they need to be successful, societal-minded adults.
Posted by Adam Arling at December 16, 2010 12:47 PM