Tag Archives: learning

Laptops in the classroom and multi-tasking

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The case for banning laptops in the classroom is a blog by Dan Rockmore in the New Yorker on the surprising proposal by one of the lecturers to ban  laptops in programming classes  at Dartmouth.  I say ‘surprising’, but it doesn’t actually surprise me, since I’ve noticed that of all people, programmers and other exceptional thinkers in just about any field tend to regard notebooks or conversation as a more appropriate tool than computers for doing conceptual work (see earlier posts of mine praising [real] notebooks and even record cards).

But the main point about laptops in class is that they’re distracting. The message of one study on the subject “aligns pretty well with the evidence that multitasking degrades task performance across the board.” What I like about the guy that proposed the ban, apart from the fact that this blog adds to my growing list of articles busting the myth of multitasking is that he’s not blaming the youth of today for being distractible, but acknowledges that laptops distract him as well, so why would it be any different for the people he teaches? 

At a conference last year I looked round the lecture room during one of the presentations, and noticed that many of the big-name researchers, due to give papers later in the conference, had their laptops open. Some were blogging, some were tweeting, some were rejigging their PowerPoint presentations, others were editing papers, checking emails or on Facebook. One was googling a term that the presenter had just used, another was looking up the book that they had just referred to on a slide. One was checking the football results, another was actually watching a game. Oh yes, and one was organizing his albums in iPhoto.

Remember, these are professors I’m talking about (in the colloquial sense of high-end academics), not adolescent undergrads. Coming from the ballet world where a teacher wouldn’t let a bunch of 6-year olds behave like this, I was pretty appalled. But what appalled me was the lack of leadership and sense of collective responsibility. I wanted the conference organizer or the person chairing the session to stand up and tell the room to get a grip, put their laptops away, and give the person at the front 20 minutes of their attention for god’s sake. As for tweeting and blogging about conferences while you’re in them, isn’t this a form of Facebook-style snap-and-post narcissism? Look at me! I was there! I heard this! It was really cool! But while you were typing that, your focus necessarily drifted from the next few sentences, if it was ever there much in the first place.

I don’t think it’s the fault of the lecture as a form. I like lectures. People who speak well can inspire. The talk I attended by Ken Robinson  eight years ago still inspires me, and remains a model to aspire to. But it’s a relational thing – lectures depend on the attention of the audience as well as the attention-grabbing skills of the lecturer.  And if lecturers themselves can’t keep their minds off football, funny kitten pictures or email, then don’t expect students to fare any better.

The problem with reading online

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Four years ago, I started an MA in music education at the Institute of Education in London. The first module was on the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and included the kind of books that I had been avoiding for 25 years, like Hanslick’s Vom musikalisch Schönen. With philosophy, there are no short cuts, you just have to read in depth and slowly.  Mid-term, I went to Malta for a short break to meet an old friend, and took my books with me, including an anthology of texts on the aesthetics of music in the original German. It’s one of my happiest memories of that time, sitting on my balcony, with nothing but a book, reading slowly, going over the same paragraph again and again until some of it made sense. Four years later, I’m still struggling to understand a lot of the same material now, but the pleasure is deep and immense when you realise that something once unfathomable has sunk in and become understood. It’s like watching a tree grow.

If I hadn’t started that MA, I would never have made the effort to achieve that understanding. Writing essays forces you to do grapple with other people’s thinking and writing, and searching, googling, information gathering is irrelevant to the task. The work is in your head. It’s deep, satisfying, and laborious.

So I knew exactly what Randy Connolly was talking about in his short presentation What’s wrong with online reading? You keep hearing about how wonderful the online world is now, how ‘everything’s on Google’ and children today are amazing, multi-tasking geniuses whose brains (as ‘digital natives’) will develop in ways that we oldies simply can’t understand because we didn’t grow up with the internet. The trouble is, despite the hype, there’s not a lot of evidence that this is really the case. What’s more, online reading is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s causing us to skim and forage without thinking a great deal, and we lose concentration as a result. Connolly’s interest in this subject started, in part, with an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?‘Given that this is a long article, and given our tendency to skim when things are on a screen, it’s probably best to download and print the article first.

Google can’t make us stupid of  course, that’s up to us. If we don’t take time to think, read carefully and stop scanning and foraging as our only mode of intellection, then we’ll end up – as even some academics admit – unable to read and concentrate in a sustained way. Connolly’s presentation is 141 slides long, but  doesn’t take more than about 5 minutes to go through because each slide has very small amounts of information on – which will ensure that you take it in. It’s well worth taking the time.

And if all this is your kind of thing, you’ll probably like all my rants about the myth of multitasking.

 

In praise of record cards

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Photo of index card box

My index cards. Not throwing them away just yet.

I was on the point of throwing away two boxes of index cards that, if I’m honest, I have rarely used. One of them I have had since 1997. I bought it because I needed some way of learning lots of new vocabulary when I started work in a German theatre. The other I’ve had since 2008 when I started my MA.  Does anyone really need record cards any more, given the enormous amount of amazing technology (most of which I use) that replaces them? I love and am reliant on Zotero, and I am a new convert to Scrivener and I’ll  make a database at the drop of a hat. So what’s the point in record cards?  I have hardly opened these boxes since I started them.

Well, the point is, as I’ve discovered, that record cards encourage me to write things down and catalogue them as I find them, and to start a card for any concept, person or phenonenon that is new to me. The card index becomes an aide-memoire for all the things that I find difficult or interesting. Looking through the cards now, I find that I had forgotten most of it.

When I was on the point of throwing the cards away, my rationale was ‘I haven’t looked at these, so they can’t be that important’. But card after card reminded me of things that I once knew, things that were once very important to me.  One of my favourites was this:

DARWINIAN theory of music” Coined by Subotnik (1987) to mean the theory that the greatest music is what survives. Cf. Leonhard & House 1972:106 “we can rely somewhat on the survival of a piece of Western music as an indication’ of expressive appeal and value”.

As an undergraduate in the days before computers, I did all my revision for exams on record cards, gradually reducing the amount on them until I could remember a whole topic from one keyword.  It never occurred to me to think ‘I guess if it’s important, I’ll remember it’. That would have been, so to speak, a Darwinian theory of learning, and a very stupid one at that.

And as for the Darwinian theory of music (in case there’s any doubt, Subotnik was using the term ironically, whereas Leonhard & House meant it seriously), I’ve been looking everywhere for that quote, but  I couldn’t even remember what the thing was that I was looking for, let alone who wrote it. A routine scout through my record cards reminds me of what I know. Yes, I could do that on a computer, but there’s too much there, and it’s too clever at hiding stuff away that might provide the necessary connections.

So for the moment, Oxfam isn’t getting my card boxes. I don’t know if I’ll keep writing index cards, but I’m certainly going to keep looking through the ones I’ve got.