Of all the units I teach in my Media Literacy class, “Media and Technology” is my favorite because it’s timely and ever-changing. Plus, my students — cell phones perpetually in their clutches — can readily relate.
This year the unit is even more pertinent because of two overlapping phenomena: our school’s new “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) policy and the impending Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Every day at school now, students routinely pass between classes with smartphones out and thumbs texting vigorously.
Such is a typical day in a school where students are allowed to Bring Their Own Devices to enhance their learning.
Concurrently, public schools are gearing up for the Common Core, national principles designed to “establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know.”
Presumably, the standards will prepare students for the 21st-century world because they were “drafted by experts and teachers from across the country and are designed to ensure students are prepared for today’s entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs.”
In addition, the standards were derived from research: “The evidence base includes scholarly research, surveys on what skills are required of students entering college and workforce training programs, assessment data identifying college‐ and career‐ready performance, and comparisons to standards from high‐performing states and nations.”
What better learning combination than students with the latest electronic gadgets and schools with research-based standards?
A review of the English/Language Arts Standards for grades 11 and 12, however, reveals scant mention of technology, save for CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.11-12.6, which requires students to “use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.11-12.5 similarly obliges students to “make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations to enhance understanding of findings, reasoning, and evidence and to add interest.”
Beyond that, there’s brief mention of technology in two other standards. That makes a grand total of four out of 75 standards that address our digital world — not exactly an accent on “21st century skills.”
It must be the current brain research, then, that justifies the standards.
“[T]he plastic (or changeable) nature of human brain structure and function is proving highly susceptible to the pervasive use of the Internet, a relatively new intellectual technology,” write Michael Landon-Murray and Ian Anderson in a Journal of Strategic Security article. “These changes fundamentally diminish capacity for such things as sustained concentration, deep thinking, and creativity.”
The authors refer to multiple sources, including Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain.”
“We are now continually plugged in through smartphones and other electronic devices,” the authors add. “For many, especially in younger generations, this immersion in all things Internet is simply a norm. We want to be in the know and in the now, and the time we spend accessing the Internet reflects that.”
Consequently, the brain — through a process called “neuroplasticity” — adapts and changes as it is increasingly exposed to such stimuli.
“The Internet is fundamentally changing the way people engage and process the written word and information more generally,” conclude the authors, “reading less of a given piece, moving through information with more superficial interest, quickly shifting from site to site and juggling different activities, and navigating more stimuli than the brain is capable of processing.”
Ironically, these very “superficial” and “quickly shifting” mental habits run counter to most Common Core Standards, including CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.8:
“Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).”
Not exactly an activity that takes today’s distracted teenagers and their changing brains into account.
Students undeniably should be accountable to challenging standards, but please don’t tell me that the CCSS are based on current research. At the very least, the standards’ authors could have conducted “observational research” by watching smartphone-wielding teenagers for a full day in a BYOD high school.
If they had, the Common Core might not only look different, but also be more authentic.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .