About that NYT piece (‘Growing Up Digital’)…

By Anne Collier

The headline’s same-old-same-old, but the article’s really worth reading: “Growing Up digital, Wired for Distraction” in the New York Times. Don’t miss it. Here’s why:

1. What conclusions are we drawing? Writer Matt Richtel found an amazing student, principal, and school to feature (Vishal Singh, Mr. Reilly, and Woodside High School in northern California). Try reading Vishal’s story at the start and finish of the article dispassionately, without the parental anxiety that always seems to boil up around college-prep time. Ok, right, based on the way most apply to college, he’s distracted. But he’s also “geeking out,” as the Digital Youth Project researchers put it in their book. He’s already doing professional work, spending hours on perfecting a few seconds of video he plans to use to apply to colleges with the best film schools. He “taught himself to use sophisticated editing software in part by watching tutorials on YouTube,” Richtel reports. This is what’s meaningful to him – not so much his Latin homework – though he’s taking Latin, amazingly, and his Latin teacher says he’s a bright student. But the article’s not just about Vishal. It’s great that Richtel brings out the individuality of a) how adults view the technology and b) how students use tech and weave it into their lives.

2. Not just virtual! Mr. Reilly the principal sounds great, but…. It’s huge that he seems to respect and care about his students and understands what engages them: Richtel brings out that he knows they love to get their hands into the technology while they’re learning various subjects, and he finds the money to get that tech into the core curriculum (where individual teachers show open-mindedness) as well as new classes, like one in which students in a music class learn how to edit music and video using professional audio- and video-editing software. But, Richtel adds, Reilly also knows that “unchecked use of digital devices, he says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.” Though well-written, that statement, whether from Reilly’s mind or Richtel’s, is unthoughtful and reflexive. Sometimes they’re literally escaping, literally into a virtual world (such as a videogame or World of Warcraft), but the word “addiction” needs to be carefully considered. Escape, used in a balanced way (as in escaping into a film, a page-turner novel, etc.), is healthy, maybe necessary at times. And “virtual” needs to be used judiciously too. Not everything youth do in digital media is virtual; sometimes, as in Vishal’s case, it’s serious creative work that’s far from virtual (see “Agents for change & the public good” here), and usually it mirrors school life, which is as important to them as our peer groups and professional life is to us.

3. One wise student. Two other great sources of Richtel’s are Woodside student Sean and Dr. Michael Rich at Harvard Medical School. Sean wisely told the writer that social media like Facebook and videogames “don’t make the hole; they fill it,” and Rich seems to punctuate that point when he talks about how we need to “bring back boredom.” In other words, youth need breathers, as I suggested last March) – breathers from the drama of school life to which constant texting and social networking can tether them (depending greatly on the kid, the peer group, and the home and school context). They may need our help with creating that breathing room and getting some time to figure out where “the holes” are and what really fills them – what is truly meaningful to them. That, along with social and creative expression, is a very important part of growing up, too.

Related links

* Of education “rooted in a student’s own pursuit of happiness” (why Mr. Reilly, the principal of Woodside High, is right) – a 7:44 video talk by educator Michael McCarthy, a student at College Unbound, a program co-founded by Dennis Littky
*Changing Education Paradigms,” an 11:40 “animated” talk by Sir Ken Robinson
*About the major Kaiser Family Foundation study on youth & media last spring: “Major study on youth & media: Let’s take a closer look”
* About a German study on youth & social media this fall: “The Net to youth: No big deal”

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