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Archive for March, 2013

Since the advent of the iPad in April 2010, younger and younger children have been drawn to the bigger and brighter version of the iPhone.  In many North American family homes that new piece of mobile digital technology instantly became part of the family and, in some cases, was mixed-in with the other children’s toys.  Toddlers were fascinated by the iPad and its magical touchscreen technology. Swiping a live screen produced an immediate electronic response that made shaking a rattle or knocking over a pile of blocks seem pretty tame.  It quickly became, what American children’s media expert Warren Buckleitner has described as “a rattle on steroids.”

ToddlersiPadsToday parenting and educating young children tends to involve some form of interaction with digital technology. Gone are the days when homes only had one television, reserved for the parents or rationed with scheduled viewing times.  Now smartphones and iPads can be found on most tables and kitchen counters within easy reach of those little arms and impossible for very active toddlers to resist.  Thousands of kids’ apps have flooded onto the market. Awash in digital devices, childhood is undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes.

Like every other new medium since the dawn of the TV age, the touchscreen device has been roundly condemned by many parents and a host of early learning specialists. One of the earliest critics of the proliferation of computer screen technology was Dr. Jane M. Healy, author of the 1990 best seller Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It.  She is famous for coining the term “zombie effect” and for raising serious concerns about exposure to television and later to computers in the early years of education.  The much revered TV show “Sesame Street” attracted her critical eye, and she took a dim view of the program because it encouraged “a short attention span” and “failed to address the real educational needs of preschoolers.”  Her 1999 book Failure to Connect extended her critique and raised alarm bells about the dangers of exposing young children to computers.

Early digital technology skeptics like Healy were gradually overtaken by the digital revolution.  Back in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics still discouraged television viewing by children under 2 years of age.  Childrens’ doctors strongly advised that time was far better spent  in “direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers.”  Pediatricians continued to urge caution, but by 2006 some 90 per cent of parents reported that their children younger than 2 consumed some form of electronic media.  That was before the spread of “iPad” app pacifiers and even iPad toys for toddlers.

Technology popularizer Marc Prensky, the IT zealot who coined the term “digital natives,” has encouraged young children to experiment freely with iPads and other mobile devices.  “The war is over. The natives won” says Prensky in explaining why he lets his own 7-year-old son watch unlimited amounts of TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and play to his heart’s content with iPads and every other conceivable form of media.  More common is the approach taken by Sandra Calvert of the Georgetown University Children’s Media Centre who allows young children to experiment, but tries to guide them “to make best use of it.”

More than two decades after the appearance of Endangered Minds, Jane M. Healy, has slightly adjusted her thinking and now advises caution and using digital technology in moderation. “Meaningful learning — the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future , ” Healy writes, ” occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today’s youngsters, at all socioeconomic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes.”  Schools of the present and future, she now recognizes, need to come to terms with the reality of IT and close the gap between traditional teaching and personal digital learning.  “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning.”   That sounds like promoting a convergence of old ways with new the digital technology world.

Children are becoming “digital natives” at younger and younger ages.  What’s the impact of increasing exposure to touchscreen technology on the brain development and behaviour of the tiny tots?   How wise is IT guru Marc Prensky in allowing his young son to play with technology at any time with few if any limits?  Why has Dr. Jane Healy changed her position on the dangers of early exposure to TV and digital technology?  Is moderation and responsible use still possible in our touchscreen mad world?

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School closure battles are raging, once again, in Canadian rural and urban inner city school districts, putting local communities through another endurance test. In Nova Scotia, small villages like Petite Riviere, Maitland, River John, Wentworth, and Mill Village  are fighting to keep both their elementary schools and communities alive.  Out West in Regina, urban reformers associated with Real Renewal are continuing their battle, now focused on saving the historic Connaught School in the Cathedral District.  In central Canada, the City of Kingston is the epicentre of the struggle to save downtown community schools like the venerable Kingston Collegiate and Vocational School from extinction. All of the disparate groups share one key objective – lifting what Toronto school reformers David Clandfield and George Martell recently termed the “iron cage” around our public schools.

PetitePlusImageGillSomething is definitely stirring in rural and small town Nova Scotia.  Community resilience is emerging from the bottom- up, as grassroots community groups, one-after-another, are rejecting the provincial closure agenda and embracing a Third Option – transforming their under-utilized small schools into “community hubs,” building around an “anchor tenant” – the P-6  population of students and teachers.  Instead of accepting the law of demographic gravity, they are organizing to re-build their communities and looking to the school boards to join in that project.

To save small communities, start by saving their schools.  That sounds like common sense but it runs counter to the “Bigger is Better” mentality of provincial and school board facilities planners. Saving inner city neighborhoods and  plugging the rural population drain should be more of a priority.

Look around Canadian cities and outlying remote rural areas.  Who is standing up for maintaining the integrity of the urban core?  Without rural schools, where will the children and families come from to re-generate the declining rural economy?  Without them, how long do communities survive?

Impact Assessment Reports, following the Department of Education formula, direct school committees to choose between two losing propositions – the status quo or further consolidation. The “Big Box” school plan down the road is usually the carrot.  In a few cases, the second option is worse, splitting up school families and busing them to scattered sites over poor country roads.

Regina school reformers were quick to recognize the potential of the Community Hub model for breaking the cycle and transforming school communities.  More recently, Nova Scotia School Study Committees at Petite Riviere, Maitland, and River John declined to play that losing game and generated their own community-based Third Options.  Not content to seek a reprieve, they got busy and produced incredibly innovative, community-building activities to fill the empty spaces and ensure the long-term sustainability of their schools.

What is this new species known as a “Community Hub School?”  “A community hub,” according to leading advocate Dr. David Clandfield, is “a central gathering place for people, their activities, and events. “

It’s more than just “a high-use multipurpose centre” and more of  “a two-way hub” where “children’s learning activities within the school contribute to  community development” and, in turn, “ community activities contribute to, and enrich, children’s learning within the school.”

Integrating centralized child, youth, and family services into the schools (as is the case with the Saskatchewan SchoolPLUS or Nova Scotia SchoolsPlus model) is only a small part of the equation.  A true community hub is a genuine partnership, building around the schools and drawing far more upon local, volunteer, and community enterprise.

Once popular myths about “Bigger is Better” consolidation ventures are being exploded at every “Public Hearing.”  Small schools are living examples of “personalized learning” and not just the theme for a cutting edge PD program.  Renovating small schools is far more cost effective than building new oversized facilities with the overblown capital, infrastructure, and transportation costs factored in.  Local taxpayers do not ultimately win when the costs of maintaining or disposing of abandoned schools are downloaded on rural municipalities.  Putting young kids ages 4 to 10 on buses for from 2 to 3 hours a day is not only very unhealthy, but puts them at higher risk of bullying and is nonsensical in the digital age.

Public hearings in Petite Riviere, Maitland, and River John turned out virtually the entire community.  Speaker after speaker asks – who here is actually in favour of “Big Box” elementary proposals and busing elementary kids to such distant schools?  The answer – No one, except perhaps for battle-worn board staff suffering in silence.

What would a Community Hub School look like?  The Maitland Plan would open the school to community partnerships and lease excess space to NSCC Truro for continuing education programs, expand Boy Scout activities, and serve as a base for CHARTS, the East Hants arts festival group.  Up in River John, the Study Committee has secured the return of the RCMP office, a local film-maker, FLAWed Productions ,  the SCORE Pre-School program, and the support of Maritime children’s author Sheree Fitch.

The Petite Plus plan is the most adventuresome and exciting, embracing innovation, local artists, and videoconferencing. With a $2 million renovation, the Petite Plus plan saves local taxpayers between $6 million and $8 million of the cost of a new Big Box elementary school.

Putting facilities first is not a winning strategy if we are truly committed to building “learning communities.” A Third Option is the best way forward because it challenges school communities themselves to come together, to develop their own Community Hub plan, and to breathe new life into public education.  Thinking small, dreaming bigger, opening the doors, and turning small schools into community hubs is now the wave of the near future.

Why are Community Hub School proposals gaining public support and traction?  Who is really opposed to giving local communities a chance to organize a plan for community regeneration?  Will the rising Community Hub School movement succeed in lifting the so-called “iron cage” around the public school system?

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Teachers sense when students are bored in the classroom.  Eyes glaze over, their minds drift off, and a pall descends upon the class.  The tendency is to drone on, repeating your points, perhaps even answering your own questions.  A phrase, vividly recalled from childhood, is etched on their faces: “I’m bored!”

ShawiniganHandshakeCherrySeeing that happening before my very eyes, during a Grade 10 History Exam Review period, in late May 2009, I resorted to extraordinary measures.  Spotting the term “Jean Chretien Liberalism” on the review sheet, I walked up to an unsuspecting Grade 10 boy, asked him to stand, and administered “the Shawinigan Handshake.” It certainly grabbed the classes’ attention, and, thankfully, the startled boy was a good sport — and didn’t report it to his parents.

That’s definitely an unorthodox antidote to boredom in the classroom, but it speaks to a much larger issue. Although boredom has been viewed as a rather trivial and short-lived discomfort relived by a change in circumstances, it can be pervasive in high schools, where one period follows another, featuring mostly didactic instruction.

Today’s students are also finding it increasingly intolerable because virtually everything outside of the classroom is on speed dial and “teacher talk” seems to be in slow motion.  It’s also clear that engaging student minds is getting harder and that boredom is becoming an unfortunate and pervasive stressor that can have significant consequences for future health and well being.

Although it’s clear that boredom can be a serious problem, the scientific study of boredom remains an obscure field, and boredom itself is still poorly understood. Even though it’s a common experience, boredom hasn’t been clearly defined within the scientific community.

Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University and colleagues at two other universities, Waterloo and Guelph, are emerging as leaders in the new field.  The September 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science featured their latest study.   It was designed to understand the mental processes that underlie our feelings of boredom in order to create a precise definition of boredom and to begin looking at how teachers and instructors might respond with new strategies designed to ease the silent pain endured by boredom sufferers of all ages.

Drawing from research across many areas of psychological science and neuroscience, Eastwood and the Canadian research  team defined boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.

Specifically, students become bored when they:

  • have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
  • become aware of the fact that they’re having difficulty paying attention
  • believe that the environment is responsible for their aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).

Eastwood and his researchers are confident that integrating the disparate fields of cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, and clinical psychology will produce a more thorough understanding of boredom and attention.

My History class was often a social laboratory for measures designed to interrupt the boredom.  Surveying Dr. Eastwood’s experiments in inducing boredom had me laughing at similar boring activities. Taking daily attendance, the homework take-up routine, and showing instructional videos of any kind come readily to mind. Supervising study periods was absolute torture, especially in the past decade when students simply refuse, or are unable to, stop fidgeting and chatting. No wonder creative teachers go a little haywire sometimes!

What comes next for the researchers?  Eastwood and his colleagues hope to help in the discovery and development of new strategies that ease the problems of boredom sufferers and address the potential dangers of cognitive errors that are often associated with boredom. That cannot come soon enough for countless numbers of students — and a great many socially-aware educators.  After all, even wiz-bang Power Point presentations and You Tube videos are starting to wear thin with today’s generation of students.

Why are today’s students so easily bored?  Are students, particularly in high school, being challenged enough — or simply being entertained?  Why are the Canadian researchers focusing so much on on defining boredom when what we really need are strategies to improve the quality of teaching, revitalize student learning and foster student re-engagement?

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