Site icon ELA Brave and True by Marilyn Yung

Checked Out: Student Disengagement in the High School Classroom

Is thinking deeply a thing of the past?

As I mentioned in my 2022 year-end post, I’ll be spending 2023 reading and researching on the loss of focus (and the disengagement it fosters) that we are witnessing in students today.

To that end, I’m on a personal quest to read more about the phenomena that many teachers are familiar with. It goes by many names: loss of student focus, lack of student attention, student distraction, student disengagement. Whichever phenomena you’ve witnessed in your classroom (and whatever you call it), I believe all these are interlinked. I would also venture that these explain in part why students struggle with anxiety and depression.

Further, student distraction is more than distraction; it’s dependency. I wrote recently about the first book I read that covers this topic: Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari, the New York Times Best-Selling author. Read that article here.

In his book, one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2022, Hari often cited this source in his writing: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Intrigued by Carr’s points that Hari ruminated on, I decided to make The Shallows second on my reading list. And I’m so glad I did.

In short, The Shallows, a 2011 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in General Nonfiction, captivated me. I did the double-whammy: I ordered a print copy and then one for my Kindle, so I can easily search the book to my heart’s content. And despite being more than a decade since it’s first printing in 2010, the book speaks to our current day, even including a chapter on AI and the ways tech companies, in the name of productivity, are leading the cause to merge humans with machines.

Carr also wrote the well-known article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” for the July 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. If you’d like a primer before purchasing The Shallows, this article will give you a good feel for the book, its content, and tone.

Even though I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of The Shallows before now, I’m so enamored with this text that it just may be the next classroom set of books I order. Carr’s classic contains so many interesting anecdotes and observations that I know it will make for some amazing bell-ringer readings as well as a great whole-class read. Here’s an example of one of Carr’s ideas: Oral cultures, such as the ancient Greeks, were as skeptical of writing as a new technology as many of us are of Chat GPT. This sort of tidbit took me aback. To think that writing was seen as a “dumbing down” of orally known works. Socrates, a proponent of preserving knowledge by keeping it safely locked in the mind, wondered why mankind would want to sacrifice our knowledge to a tablet or page. Interesting stuff, indeed.

This tidbit also shows that The Shallows isn’t an alarmist Oh, no, we’re doomed! tome. Instead, it’s a balanced look at how societies have adjusted throughout history when confronted with a new intellectual technology, such as the watch, the map, or Gutenberg’s letterpress. Carr provides just enough accessible historical context to pique the reader’s interest in following his primary argument: we may be sacrificing our ability to think deeply as we embrace all things “online.”

After all, we can talk about the importance of critical thinking skills all we want, but in our multi-tasking, non-stop notifications culture, why expect a student to think critically when he or she struggles to complete a thought?

So, if you’re frustrated with student disengagement in your classroom, especially after you’ve worked SO HARD to create relevant and meaningful lessons, read The Shallows. It just may help you understand what many of us see happening within our student populations.

10 Points The Shallows Makes (in no particular order)

  1. Education and the acquisition of knowledge has an image problem. Carr writes of a “fundamental shift taking place in society’s attitude toward intellectual achievement.” Those who prefer excerpts over full texts (and those who disdain reading altogether) “also make it a lot easier for people to justify that shift — to convince themselves that surfing the Web is a suitable, even superior, substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought.” (pg. 112)
  2. Online reading is not the same as printed page reading. “Skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.” (pg. 138)
  3. Memorizing is not a waste of time. Memorizing is “the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading.” In other words, when we internalize information, we own it and build new knowledge with it. (pg. 179)
  4. Our vocabularies are suffering. “Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” (pg. 108)
  5. Fun fact: The first writing had no spaces between words. Scribes wrote down what they heard, i.e. they didn’t hear the spaces. (It’s also why we have to teach children to put spaces between their words when they learn to write.) This is another example of the fascinating history behind our intellectual technologies, from PCs to alphabets, that makes this such a fun book to read. (pg. 65)
  6. The Internet is a different media animal. “The Internet differs from most of the mass media it replaces in an obvious and very important way: it’s bidirectional.” We can both download information from it and upload our own ideas to it. This interactivity consumes us. (pg. 85)
  7. The Internet offers it all, and we’ve gladly accepted it. Until the Internet, media was fragmented. Books and magazines couldn’t offer sound. TV couldn’t offer text (except in small amounts). Radio was limited to sound. Calculators only handled numbers. Encyclopedias only provided facts. However, because it’s digitized, the Internet can do everything. (pg. 85)
  8. There’s a connection between the Internet as a medium and mental health. Carr writes, “…frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious.” (pg. 132)
  9. Without the ability to think deeply on a topic, we are losing the ability to innovate and invent. “The Internet diminishes our ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.” (pg. 143)
  10. We’ve known this all along, but Carr actually says it: “The Internet was not built by educators to optimize learning.” (pg. 131)

In chapters with titles such as Tools of the Mind, The Deepening Page, The Juggler’s Brain, The Church of Google, and A Thing Like Me, Carr has so much to say. My piddly little “shallow” blog post can’t begin to capture the breadth and depth of this important book. Do yourself (and your students) a favor and head to your library for The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Thanks for reading!

I’m adding to my storehouse of knowledge with each book I read on our students’ diminishing abilities to focus and engage. I am now reading Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. That sounds so ominous, doesn’t it?

And while I don’t want to dwell on the negatives, I do think teachers and administrators need to know how to address what we are actually seeing in the classroom with students and their dependency on Smart phones and online technologies. I’m ultimately looking for solutions and so far, here’s one: we need to put our phones away and find something else to do. To learn what that “something else” might be, subscribe below, and I’ll keep posting about what I’m learning.

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