As a teacher, I have often thought, “Seriously, why does this student think I’ll believe this is hard for him?” After all, I begin with the same historical texts as I have for nearly a decade; yet I notice each year there are more students who struggle to read them. According to authors Jean Twenge (iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us) and Maryanne Wolf (Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World), I have been asking the wrong question. The correct question is, how have society and technology changed our reading habits and rewired our brains?
Today’s students belong to Generation Z/iGen/Cyber Generation, which plays a huge role in their desire to avoid “old ideas” of how people communicate when they can just “google the answer or let Grammarly tell me what to do,” as one student put it when I asked why they did not seem to want to learn. It is also important to consider that (according to Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2010) students’ brains may not be accustomed to reading to understand, connect to humanity, or enjoy a text, but instead only skim to answer specific questions. This seems to reflect what I am seeing in my classroom. Students expect to find recall questions in my eleventh grade English class, while I expect my students to be able to infer meaning beyond the literal words on the page.
At some point, teachers quit using as many novels and short stories that help us connect to the people within our own cultures and understand people from other cultures, likely in response to mandated testing that is more analytical than connection-building. We have taken play away from kids at younger ages and replaced that time with more serious or educational reading, which convinces kids to regard texts as an end to a means instead of a journey to enjoy. As fun and connections disappear, so does student desire to read.
Carr further explains that we read differently on devices than we do on paper, which means there is another disconnect. By analyzing how people read online, scientists have learned that we skim on computers, phones, and tablets - our eyes literally move across the top of the page and then jump around looking for visual clues as to what is important. We have grown accustomed to bold, flashy, stand-outs that grab our attention and lure us away from the actual content of the page. We read the summaries instead of the article and feel like the general idea is good enough. For adults, the flashy accoutrements work to convince us whether to spend time reading further, but for iGen, the summary is enough for them to feel satisfied.
Furthermore (according to Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy - and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood *And What That Means for the Rest of Us, 2017), today’s students consider themselves “realists,” which they define as being more willing to accept their failings than try to improve them. Twenge explores ideas that have changed over several generations, including how people feel about the future, the present, and the world at large. She conducted surveys in which students explain that older generations (as in anyone old enough to be teaching right now!) have messed up civility, politics, and ecology so much that today’s teens are inheriting a hopeless world, so why should they sweat the small stuff?
The students who believe this theory have a hard time understanding why they should work toward improving themselves when they will never be able to overcome the difficulties that overwhelm the entire world. They also believe that everyone should accept them as they are -- which adults have been advocating for years. The poliarity, in my opinion, comes from the fact that the different generations do not agree on what that acceptance entails. Adults used to espouse acceptance of individuals regardless of their abilities, but that ideal has now been translated into “accept me as I am right now,” including world views and attitudes, which means anyone who tries to expand their mindset or enhance their education is “trying to change me.” This is seen as an assault against them as an individual, which is almost always met with resistance.
So what does this mean for teachers? How can we educate people who have been trained out of reading critically and refuse to update their perspectives? It is tricky. But I refuse to give up hope. Instead, I have a new approach, based on my National Board Certification journey. The trick is not much of a trick at all: explaining my rationale for assignments, connecting purpose to student comments, performing more diagnostics and giving fewer “tests.”
I am fortunate to teach in a small public high school that does not require turning in daily lesson plans, but that does not mean my instruction is not thought out and methodical. Every lesson I do is based on my state standards, but I am rationalizing assignments to my students instead of to my administrators. As my classes read a new text or begin writing a new essay, I am intentionally providing them connections to their life, other classes, and state standards. There has been a noticeable increase in buy-in for some larger assignments.
When students comment, question, or complain about an assignment or text, I keep track of the comments. When it is time to move on to the next task, I try to use the exact phrases I have noted in my rationale or explanation. This small change has made a huge difference in how much students pay attention to the assignment - and it has made me realize that in parroting their words, I am acknowledging their authority to be a part of the planning process, which encourages further discussion and collaboration.
Twenge also spent a lot of time exploring the idea that today’s kids are afraid to fail, so transitioning to more project-based unit endings instead of tests helps students feel more in command of their own education. While tests are totally appropriate for many subjects (like math!), projects in which students showcase the knowledge or understanding they have gained in subjects that are more subjective (like English) allow students more freedom to express their learning creatively. As long as a specific rubric is created ahead of time, students have more leeway in proving their new understanding.
Teachers must help students rewire their brains and attitudes to accept new ideas or to read beyond the headlines and flashy titles. It is hard work, but we can help our students learn to learn more effectively by understanding their perspectives and being willing to adapt our expectations based on the information that is available regarding brain and social science.