Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #2: They shushed us in libraries (which were filled with books)

The stereotype of the shushy librarian with her hair in a bun and the horn-rimmed spectacles is a thing of the past. Like museums, libraries have been transforming themselves into more “user friendly” spaces, full of interactive technologies, entertainment centres, fake fireplaces, sofas, and even, in some cases, cafes. Cafes, in a library! After all the years custodians of books have tried to keep crumbs out of libraries for fear of mice and book worms (the real ones, not the nerds, who seem to have migrated to the internet)! Not that there is much fear of destruction of books by vermin anymore, since they took the books out of libraries. Our library still has actual books on actual shelves, thank God, most of which go unread and unused – although the manga section is well-used, I notice, with backlogs of waiting teenagers like Depression-era bread lines. I took a senior class down to the library recently for guided research and was unpleasantly made aware that I could just as easily have taken them to the computer lab. Not one of them went to the stacks. Wikipedia shone bright and cheerful from every computer screen, and even when I provided them with books on the topics they were researching that I had pulled from the shelves myself, they held them awkwardly, like unfamiliar objects. Some of them were picture books with a limited amount of text describing aspects of 17th-century dress; still, they were unable to construct an argument based on those descriptions, since they only read about half a line of text before getting distracted or jumping to a conclusion and ignoring the rest of the sentence. These are otherwise pretty clever kids, but libraries as a place where books are found is apparently a foreign concept to some of them, and reading something longer than a hyperlink is a challenge to many.

Also foreign to them is the idea of whispering or staying quiet for any reason, including when watching a film at the cinema or doing research in a library. To be fair, the modern library with its lattes and end tables is hardly set up for serious individual study. It’s more like a gentlemen’s club (the Victorian ones, not the euphemised strip clubs you see advertised in tabloids). All you need is Jeeves to bring you a nice snifter of cognac and the colonel in the chair opposite you to start talking about big game hunting, or the Boer War. Like many stupid ideas, this one started with good intentions. I use the term ‘stupid’ diagnostically here, rather than pejoratively; I get along really well with our librarian, a wonderful woman who cares about kids and books in nearly equal measure. But the demise of the school library as a quiet place of study is a stupid, stupid idea that is only going to breed more stupidity before (I hope) it expires early, maybe of heart disease or something. This is one bandwagon idea whose obituary needs to read ‘untimely’.

Simply put, people need a quiet, distraction-free environment if they’re going to actually learn. They need prolonged periods of focused attention in order to move information from the short-term to the long-term memory (something we’d call actual learning, rather than just cramming for an exam and flushing the mental toilet, so to speak). To their credit, my colleagues seem to have recognised this, and now we have one night a week of “quiet time” in the library, attended by about a dozen students out of the 1500 or so we have roaming our hallways and occasionally sitting down in classrooms to rest. Though administrators like to point to studies that imply that students’ learning is unaffected or even enhanced by such ‘inescapable realities’ as multitasking, electronic learning, and cooperative studying, and that the ‘dinosaur days’ of quiet libraries and the absence of cell phones in classrooms did damage to their self-esteem and therefore their academic success, there is really just no justification for such claims.

First, there is no good evidence for the existence of multitasking ability in humans. This is something that even proverbial wisdom recognised; there are proverbs in Chinese, African, Roman and Greek cultures which stress the futility of “trying to catch two rats at once”, as one Ugandan source puts it. Dr Norman Doidge, whom I have referenced in the first in this series of posts, makes it clear that “paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change” (The Brain That Changes Itself, p. 68) . He details experiments conducted by Michael Merzenich, “the world’s leading researcher on brain plasticity” (Doidge 46), in which monkeys were trained to touch spinning disks with a particular amount of pressure for a specific amount of time to receive a reward. The monkeys were ‘motivated’ to learn, and successfully re-mapped the neurons of their brains — but the changes (which included faster and more accurate thought and motor skills) were only long-lasting if the monkeys paid close attention. Though the monkeys who “went through the paces” with a divided attention and received their banana-pellets also re-mapped their brains, the changes faded with time. Many studies of so-called multitasking in drivers have led to the outright ban of cell-phone use while driving in many parts of North America and the world .

It simply doesn’t work well — even comparisons to the effects of driving while drunk have been unflattering to cell phone multitaskers, and a study by HP concluded that “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” Many other credible sources have pointed out the adverse effect that multitasking has on real learning.

Second, the kind of controls that one can apply to tests of learning (unless, like Drs Doidge and Merzenich, you can do a brain-scan) usually result in ‘learning’ being defined in terms of “ability to score highly on a test”, which as many of us high school teachers can attest, is hardly an indication of long-term brain re-mapping. Mostly it measures short-term ‘cramming’ of information into students’ heads the night before an exam. Dr James Côté and Dr Anton Allahar, co-authors of Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, provide statistics for what they say constitutes the typical North American university student population: 40-50% totally disengaged, spending less time on their studies per week than they would a part-time job; 40% partially engaged; and only 10% falling into the category of ‘engaged’, long-term learners. My own observations over more than a decade of high school teaching approximate those percentages.

Third, as Côté and Allahar also point out , there is simply no credible evidence that this generation of students, or any other, belongs to a special “digital generation” who require technological pandering in order to learn. In fact, studies have shown that when computers were introduced into nearly every class during the great Information Cult of the 1990s, the schools (and students) who were exposed to the greatest use of computers during their learning process actually did the most poorly on such assessments as the PISA test. More and more, skepticism is creeping in to the assumption that computers automatically increase our children’s learning; now (finally) the narrative of the inevitability of “computer culture” is being balanced with descriptions of addiction, distraction, and detrimental effects of computers on education.

As Heather-Jane Robertson asserts in her 2007 book Great Expectations: Essays on Schools and Society, it is telling to remember from whence came the loudest voices of the “computer in every classroom” age: computer salesmen and purveyors of technology.

Now to the subject of noise and distraction. I work in a very large high school in an urban environment. The number of distractions in such an environment is enormous, even without adding in the additional frustrations of an administrative staff who seem to have no understanding of what goes on inside a classroom, and no interest in controlling the noise in the hallways outside those classes. During a typical 75-minute class period, I can expect to be interrupted by the P.A. system, shouting or other noise from the halls or outside, or the ringing phone about four times on average (yes, I checked!) That means that many classes have far more interruptions than even that. I do have some sympathy for the admin staff, who number a total of three individuals and have to deal with over a hundred staff members and more than fifteen hundred students. It must be hell to try to work out the logistics of a setup like that. But their cutting of corners when trying (for example) to locate a particular student by broadcasting their name over the P.A. to the whole school sends the message that nothing that could possibly be happening in around 65 different classrooms at that moment could possibly be more important than finding that one (or two, or three, or ten) students that day. Sixty-five teachers, sometimes in the throes of an important demonstration, conversation, or lecture, all have to stop, wait, and then spend upwards of fifteen minutes trying to regain the kind of attention and classroom momentum that they had spent forty-five minutes building up in the first place.

Yes – studies have shown that the kind of close attention that skilled teachers can instil in their students, so necessary for long-term learning, once broken, can take between 15 and 25 minutes (or longer!) to regain. This translates to some pretty serious costs, and should translate to some even more serious reworkings of the status quo. In a business environment, where an employee is distracted about once every 11 minutes, nearly a third of the working day can be wasted just trying to get back on task. Many times efforts to do so are entirely foiled, as every office worker knows, by such things as meetings and phone calls, to the point where a Basex study suggested that the U.S. economy is losing close to $600 billion annually to distraction. Julian Treasure, in this wonderful 8-minute TED talk, claims that the noise resultant from the ubiquitous open-plan office can reduce productivity by two thirds! Amazingly, the simple act of replacing loud background noise with natural sounds such as birdsong piped in through earphones can triple productivity back up to its normal level.

Jason Fried, in this one, describes how the office environment has become so distracting that the vast majority of employees do not list the office as a place where work can most effectively be done. He makes some recommendations for managers who want to increase productivity in the workplace environment, all of which aim at creating the several hours’ worth of silent focused attention that is necessary for good work, including: 1. Cancelling most meetings outright, without rescheduling them. 2. Instituting several hours a week of monastery-style silence in the office. No talking. 3. Managing as much as possible via email and IM, to minimise face-to-face interruptions. This last one might seem a little counterintuitive, given the very distracting effect of email detailed by the Basex study above, but Fried makes the point that work, like sleep, moves in phases, and that (properly managed) interruptions of our own choosing can actually be beneficial as we come down off a period of intense concentration, as opposed to having someone else interrupt us in the middle of a train of thought. Lessons for both students and teachers in a school environment abound.

Moving away from the dangerous fallacy of equating a business environment to a school (more on that elsewhere), add to these facts more studies: one that shows that “noise distraction affects memory” (adversely, it need hardly be said; though the conclusions of the study are slightly curious: it suggests that managers should “Avoid long periods of quiet in the work environment so employees will not be distracted by the introduction of an annoying sound.” (!!!)

Here’s another, from Wired magazine, no less: the distraction-prone methods of learning from a computer are creating shallow thinkers with crippled brain-maps.

And another, this one a report by Ofsted, Britain’s Office for Standards in Education, which has correlated noisy home environments with slower progress at school.

Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (ironically, using an iPhone app to conduct their research) published a paper in the journal ‘Science’ that determined that — beyond even the issues of noise, distraction, and learning — the lack of ability to be ‘present’ psychologically (the result of poor attention span) has negative effects on one’s mental and emotional health.

Another study has solved even the mother of all mysteries:   the source of the proverbial nastiness of airplane food! Apparently it’s not the food itself, so much as the incessant white background noise of the plane, which short-circuits the brain’s ability to taste and enjoy a meal!

Norman Doidge cites studies that show that the closer children lived to the noisy airport in Frankfurt, Germany, or a busy highway in Chicago, the lower their intelligence!  (Doidge 81) He also describes how Dr Merzenich subjected young rats’ brains during development to bursts of white noise, and was able to show that they displayed symptoms associated with both epilepsy and autism! Amazingly, with proper re-training of the brain using moderated sound, the rats’ cortices were able to achieve an “above-normal range” of function: proof that even the physical structure of the brain is subject to change based on motivation, proper training, and focused attention. Research is now ongoing to find out if these methods could benefit brain-injured patients, whose attempts to re-learn how to walk, talk, etc., are compromised because of their inability to pay attention.

When I was in Teachers’ College, we were told that “studies show” that teenage brains have an attention span of no more than ten to twenty minutes, and this was used to ensure that we did not plan lessons that required students to focus on one topic for more than that small amount of time. Besides the now-debunked biologically deterministic basis to that argument, it always struck me as a chicken-and-egg situation. Certainly, if we never demand more from our students than a ten-minute presentation (on goldfish?), they will never rise beyond our expectations. But what if our expectations were higher? I’m convinced that ideas about “self-esteem” and adversity to failure are behind such dunderheaded thinking, but (as I’ll show in my next posting, on the subject of failure), both of those tracks contain fallacies and errors of judgement. From my own experience as a high school teacher, I’ve found that when teachers’ expectations are high, students’ performance (after periods of sometimes intense whining by both students and their parents) follows suit, and their self-esteem is pulled up with it. Dr Merzenich’s findings, especially, have renewed my commitment to help students train their attention spans to levels where significant long-term re-mapping of their brains can take place. I am determined not to fall into the trap of feeding our distracted society’s low expectations of our children and then have the resultant weak learners be paraded before me as ‘proof’ of the requirement to further dumb down my lessons.

This strikes me as another example of an age-old argument technique: Make a claim that a certain group of individuals (women, slaves, a certain race, children) is by its very nature incompetent. Then remove from them the means by which to disprove this claim — you can do this insidiously, such as by disenfranchising women, denying them access to education, and confining them to spheres of relative unimportance by claiming you are protecting them from harm. Then, when someone asks you for evidence of their incapacity, you can show that their knowledge and skills are insufficient for the task at hand (after all, you don’t want a bunch of uneducated, ill-informed women voting, do you?) If you’ve done it right, most women won’t even want to vote, having been pacified sufficiently by your rhetoric and assignment of roles. The trope of “student-as-hopelessly-weak-and-in-need-of-spoonfeeding” is pervasive in education, to the point where students themselves become angry when asked to play a role more in keeping with their actual ability.

Similarly, Lenore Skenazy, in her excellent book (and blog) Free Range Kids, has compared the tremendous and unnecessary infantilisation of our children well past the age of maturity to the famous “Problem That Has No Name”, first expounded upon by second-wave feminist Betty Friedan in her book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan describes the stifling, imprisoned feeling of being forced into an infantile role in a society in which on some level the victim knows they can play a bigger, more active part. Skenazy ponders whether the high rates of depression and listlessness amongst our children is related to this systematic stripping of our children’s rights to independence and self-actualisation, all in the name of ‘safety’. While Skenazy’s book deals mostly with the hyper-sexualised fearmongering of media and “safety”-oriented companies out to make a buck off of parents’ concern for the well-being of their children, I believe that the argument can (and should) be expanded to include the education system.

Apparently, we still haven’t learned our own lessons. Did the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements tell us nothing about how to treat people? Don’t our kids deserve better?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #2: They shushed us in libraries (which were filled with books)

  1. Wow, this is incredibly insightful. I left the teaching profession about 4 years ago and thank GOD that I don’t have to deal with some of the frustrations you so eloquently articulated in this blog.

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