Educational Meltdown?

Why are so many people hooked on screens, whether it’s Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, instant sports streaming, or something else? Instant gratification, of course. Entertainment, news, weather, or even quick short research inquiries. Convenience as well, of course, with driving directions dictated to you by Siri or some other compliant [usually, anyway] electronic voice.

I’ve already offered comments, mostly negative, on Google, and the fact that algorithm-based short popular answers amount to “Top 40” knowledge, and that Google provides knowledge with less depth than a wading pool while giving its users the illusion that they know a great deal when what they know is usually little more than a superficial gloss that they won’t retain because true knowledge is rooted in deeper study and actually knowing the underlying structure and principles.

Unfortunately, there’s another, and darker side, and that’s the impact on education. Over the past few years, I’ve talked to educators across the United States, and almost all of them are having problems with the ability of younger Americans to concentrate and to stay focused on anything not involved with a screen, preferably an interactive screen. They’re also easily “bored” and want to be “entertained” by their instructors, and the highest ratings on student surveys almost invariably go to the most entertaining professors.

This isn’t exactly new, but it’s gotten steadily worse. If memory serves me correctly, back in 1960 Fred Pohl wrote about this problem in a book called Drunkard’s Walk, although that wasn’t the main theme of the book. Pohl accurately predicted the growth of what I’d call “edutainment” where college professors can only keep the attention of students so long as they’re entertaining.

At the same time, as social media has allowed college students to withdraw more and more from day-to-day personal face-to-face interactions, they have become more and more emotionally fragile, less able to take even constructive criticism, and more and more needing constant praise and encouragement. The number needing counseling has skyrocketed.

On top of that, far too many of today’s students have trouble remembering information discussed in class or information that they’ve read, even from a screen. Again, this isn’t totally new. Cram and forget as a technique for passing classes was certainly around when I was a student, but back then some of that information was actually retained.

But this all fits in nicely with the new order, where a President can say something, and then deny it a day or two later… and no one remembers except the purveyors of “fake news,” who aren’t believed by anyone who disagrees with them.

So maybe it’s better this way, where no one remembers history, or unpleasant contradictory facts, so long as they’re entertained and everyone praises them.

7 thoughts on “Educational Meltdown?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Granted that there is a widespread lack of self-discipline among the young, although (a) what older generation _hasn’t_ noted that, and (b) how did the older generation fail to teach that in the critical years before the beginning of formal schooling? But although an instructor should not have to be entertaining as such, they should be engaging, relating in some degree the material being taught to something obviously useful, or to a variety of interests. There’s a significant difference in priority and purpose, but to be engaging tends to also be somewhat entertaining as a side-effect.

    I’d love to learn the advanced math required for advanced physics; but many of the prerequisites (formal or practical) are just plain tedious, and for sheer curiosity rather than any practical purpose, that’s a lot of bother. I think a mostly self-study curriculum that included interesting (if simplified) sample applications might be helpful to me. I could do it on sheer will, but there’s only so much of that to go around; and engagement would be supportive. School should teach tools for practical and constructively skeptical thinking, parents should teach discipline; school isn’t boot camp (although some neglected “students” may need a separate boot camp, IMO).

  2. Tim says:

    Looking back at my education in the 60s and 70s I can only remember those schoolmasters who were idiosyncratic in some way. I now realise this was probably cultivated to engage interest.

    At university, lecturers came in, spoke to a blackboard for 40 minutes or so , handed out Roneo’d assignments and left. The more senior they were, the worse they were. No engagement at all. Just a factory for degrees. It was all down to the student which may be a good thing but I think I would have enjoyed the 3 years more if there had been some effort towards engagement – ‘entertainment’ if you will.

    I have also just realised I never once had a woman teacher or lecturer.

  3. Lourain says:

    I put some of the blame on ‘Sesame Street’. 😉
    As a science teacher, I had several advantages. 1) Labs worked best when students follow directions (culinary arts has a similar advantage). 2) The real, physical world doesn’t care what the Internet says…if you step off of the roof, you WILL fall.
    A fundamental mistake that most people make about education is that if the teacher is good enough, students can learn anything. Sorry, doesn’t work that way.
    The average student can pick up enough superficial knowledge to pass the average test. Since more complex subjects require a knowledge of underlying principles, this superficial knowledge isn’t enough. Memorize and forget.
    Unless highly motivated, superficial is as far as the average student will go. Unless the student has the mental and/or physical ability, motivation may not be enough. (I wanted to be an artist, but didn’t have the mindset or imagination for fine arts.)
    The Internet allow students to cut and paste knowledge, so that they do not have to put in the effort to memorize. Of course they will use it this way. Most people try to avoid what they consider unnecessary work. If they are interested in the topic, they can quote chapter and verse (like superhero backstories).

  4. Tom says:

    If you read; document what you have read in someway; and visualize it (other than in written form) you are bound to remember most of what ever “it”may be.

    This requires effort concentration and time out from other activity for your brain.

    If this is part of your education it also requires presentation of the material in a form that can be comprehended at your class level. The teacher does not get off the hook: the teacher does have a responsibility to make the material comprehensible ( not necessarily an entertainment).

    The meltdown seems to be enhanced by the screens but was present and is present because of the difference in our individual learning abilities; and that is still not being addressed in a practical manner by our educational systems.

  5. j says:

    I suppose I must be ‘lucky’. I absorb knowledge by reading, not by listening. Which caused me no end of trouble over 60 years ago, from teachers who said I ‘wasn’t paying enough attention’ but then had to eat crow at my high exam results. Different persons learn in different ways, and that ‘disruptive pupil’ may just be bored to death by ‘talking’ lessons that are chapters behind his or her book-reading.

    1. The problem is that these “bored” students aren’t learning. They don’t or can’t listen and can’t or won’t read.

  6. Michael says:

    Another aspect of this is that academics face immense pressure to accept this new reality and pass students that they know have inadequate understanding of the material. Foolishly brave professors without tenure will not be renewed.

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