Are you a Believer or Skeptic?

I just read a great article in the nytimes titled “Your Brain on Computers” about the pervasiveness of technology in our lives, and for some, they feel that it affects (not necessarily in a good way) the way our brains work. If you’ve read the book, Brain Rules, you’ll know what local author and scientist has to say about that. For those of you with newborns and are fans of Medina’s work, his new book, Brain Rules for Babies comes out in October.

There seems to be enough evidence that multi-tasking (when those tasks require more than muscle memory) reduces productivity. As I write this, for example, I should ignore all email, phone calls, or anything that isn’t directly related to this post. There have been times when writing about one thing, I click on another and suddenly my attention to my original task is gone. What’s interesting for me, is I find that I am neither a skeptic nor believer. I am a huge proponent of technology, but recognize that it can, in fact take over if you let it. That is why it’s important to teach kids how to use technology responsibly. They need to know when to turn it off. Sometimes we get so consumed at what we’re doing we lose track of time. That’s a good thing if we have nothing else on our agenda and if what we are doing is constructive, relaxing, or something that brings us joy.

When we are reading the same news story from a fifth news source, scanning TV channels for more than 15 minutes, or reaching into our pockets to check emails on our phones every few minutes, that can be detrimental. Technology is a wonderful thing and I think all children should be exposed to it, taught how to use it in productive ways, and be resourceful about it. After all, the piano is a piece of technology. So is a kettle (whether you put one over a fire or use an electric one). We don’t use slide rules anymore, but those who remember them were probably glad they had that tool. What’s happening with personal technology today is that it is evolving at an impressively fast rate. It’s hard to keep up. I signed up for a twitter account about a month ago with the idea to learn more about teachers who tweet. I haven’t publicized it, don’t follow anyone yet (this will happen), nor have I even tweeted. Yet last week, I received my first follower.

What’s great about technology today is that you can modify a lot of things. For example, both at home, at school, and on my phone, I turn my email notifications off. There is no need to develop a Pavlovian response to email (especially since many aren’t even that important). You can set timers and limit yourself to the tasks you think you have to do. The same goes with kids. I would expect them read what they were supposed to read on their e-readers (resisting or disabling the buttons for other apps), and when it was time to go outside to recess, they would go, get fresh air, and interact with each other. After all, the traditional book itself is a piece of technology.

This past weekend, the weather in Seattle was around 90 degrees and I was fortunate to be out on Lake Washington on a boat. Once I changed into board shorts, I packed my phone away and after 8 hours did not reach for it once. I didn’t reach for it. There was a moment when I wanted to know what time it was, and since my phone is my timekeeper I had no idea. Rather than go retrieve my phone,  I instead decided I didn’t really need to know that piece of information. I could look at the sun in the sky, estimate, and relax.

Returning from a day on a friend's boat.

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