RSS

Tag Archives: New York Times

Why You Shouldn’t Say “You’re Welcome”

by Adam Grant -

The script is so deeply ingrained that you don’t even need to think about it. When you do a favor, and someone says “thank you,” the automatic response is “you’re welcome.” It’s a basic rule of politeness, and it signals that you accept the expression of gratitude—or that you were happy to help.

But according to one leading psychologist, this isn’t the best choice of words. After four decades of studying persuasion, Influence author Robert Cialdini has come to see “you’re welcome” as a missed opportunity. “There is a moment of power that we are all afforded as soon as someone has said ‘thank you,’” Cialdini explains. To capitalize on this power, he recommends an unconventional reply:

“I know you’d do the same for me.”

There are at least three potential advantages of this response. First, it conveys that we have the type of relationship where we can ask each other for favors and help each other without keeping score. Second, it communicates confidence that you’re the kind of person who’s willing to help others. Third, it activates the norm of reciprocity, making sure that you feel obligated to pay the favor back in the future.

As Guy Kawasaki writes in Enchantment, “Cialdini’s phrase tells the person who received your favor that someday you may need help, too, and it also signals to the person that you believe she is honorable and someone who will reciprocate. If this is the spirit in which you’re saying it, your response is far more enchanting than the perfunctory ‘You’re welcome.’ ”

Although the logic is compelling, and I’m a longtime admirer of Cialdini’s work, I’ve never felt comfortable saying this phrase out loud. At first I thought I was too attached to politeness rules. How could I leave a “thank you” just hanging in the air without the proper acknowledgment? Awkward.

That explanation fell apart, though, when I realized I could just combine politeness with Cialidni’s response: “You’re welcome—I was happy to do it. I know you’d do the same for me.”

It didn’t change my mind. The response still left a bad taste in my mouth. Eventually, I realized the problem was the subtle appeal to reciprocity. There’s nothing wrong with trading favors or asking others to repay the help you’ve given, but when I chose to help people, I wanted to do it without strings attached. I didn’t want to leave them feeling like they owed me. So I stuck with the familiar, banal “you’re welcome,” which was mildly dissatisfying. Why do we utter this strange phrase?

In English, it’s a relatively new arrival. Over the past century, “you’re welcome” has evolved to connote that it’s my pleasure to help you or “you are welcome to my help,” which we tend to say more directly in other languages like Spanish and French (“the pleasure is mine,” “it was nothing,” “no problem”). Is there a better alternative?

I stumbled upon an answer after meeting Adam Rifkin, a serial entrepreneur who was named Fortune’s best networker. He goes out of his way to help a staggering number of people, doing countless five-minute favors—making introductions, giving feedback, and recommending and recognizing others. After Rifkin does you a favor, it’s common for him to reach out and ask for your help in return.

At first, it seems like he’s just following the norm of reciprocity: since he helped you, you owe him. But there’s a twist: he doesn’t ask you to help him. Instead, he asks you to help him help someone else.

Rifkin is more concerned about people paying it forward than paying it back. In his view, every favor that he does is an opportunity to encourage other people to act more generously. That way, a broader range of people can benefit from his contributions.

After watching Rifkin in action, it dawned on me that Cialdini’s line could be adapted. Instead of “I know you’d do the same for me,” how about this response?

“I know you’ll do the same for someone else.”

Just like Cialdini’s reply, it affirms your character as a person who’s happy to be helpful. Unlike his version, it doesn’t deliver the implicit message that you’re indebted to me, and I’m waiting for you to repay it.

It’s just a sentence, but the underlying values have the potential to fundamentally change the way that people interact. In traditional direct reciprocity, people trade favors back and forth in pairs. In contrast, Rifkin’s approach is called generalized reciprocity. As described by political scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.”

If you follow this approach, when you really need help, you have access to a broader range of potential givers. If you stick to direct reciprocity, you can only ask people you’ve helped in the past or might be able to help in the future. In generalized reciprocity, you can extend your request to a wider network: since you’ve given without strings attached, other people are more inclined to do the same. In fact, social scientists James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis have conducted experiments showingthat acts of giving often spread “up to three degrees of separation (from person to person to person).”

So next time someone expresses appreciation for your help, it might be worth stretching beyond politeness to ask them to pay it forward. I know you’ll do that for someone else.

***

Adam is the author of Give and TakeNew York Times and Wall Street Journalbestseller on how helping others drives our success. Follow him here by clicking the yellow FOLLOW above and on Twitter @AdamMGrant

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Knowledge Sharing In 2013

The challenges of knowledge sharing is becoming more difficult as more information becomes available. According to the Daily Mail, the average person is exposed to enough data to fill 174 newspapers every day. This staggering amount of content highlights how critical it is for companies to have clear channels for interoffice communication. Employees must know how to sort through data and effectively share it with their associates.

Companies are ensuring that their staff members have the proper skills to find and distribute important information. Tools like social media and databases have become key components for knowledge sharing in 2013.  The data must be fully understood before businesses can capitalize on it.

Reliable research
The internet has become a valuable tool for information and knowledge sharing, but unfortunately, it web also makes it extremely difficult for employees to find verified data from reliable sources. What seems like a great statistic that’s indicative of a specific market trend may actually be a complete fabrication written by an anonymous blogger. Managers are worried that their employees will rely on false data and unintentionally hurt the business.

The problem has become so severe that Google has stepped in to help. According to The New York Times, the search engine recently began offering courses to show people how to find reliable data. Over 155,000 students joined the first class, and attendance is expected to grow during future installments.

Programs like Google’s classes help bolster knowledge-sharing within an enterprise. Managers should offer research training to their staff members to ensure that data is verified before it’s shared.

Webinars are vital
Webinars and online training are becoming key contributors to knowledge development and sharing.  Many companies are using them to ensure that their employees have access to verified information. In-person meetings are being gradually replaced by digital alternatives. The mobile workforce requires constant connectivity, so managers encourage their workers to host and participate in webinars.

An online seminar can be a staff meeting, a product demonstration or any topic related to the  industry the participants are in. With webinars, employees ensure that they are speaking with a reliable source, whether it is a client, an associate or a trusted third-party.

Social Media Today points out that many webinar applications allow hosts and attendees to record presentations. These files can be valuable for knowledge sharing. Employees can share the meetings with their associates so that the entire company has access to the information.

Benefits of knowledge sharing
Forbes writes that are three primary benefits of knowledge sharing in the corporate arena: decision-making, learning and innovation. Reliable data allows companies to make the best possible decisions and adapt to market forces. This allows an enterprise to position itself as an industry leader.

They also point out that knowledge sharing fosters an educational atmosphere that makes learning part of the everyday routine. Workers grow as they discover new information and can improve their on-the-job performance.

Finally, data allows companies to monitor trends so that they can improve. Instead of falling behind competitors, a business can innovate its products or internal operations.

Featured images:

Scott Murray is the Social Learning Evangelist for TrainUp.com, the web’s largest career marketplace.  He is also a contributor to the Training Insights Blog, a series of blogs dedicated to career and professional development.

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Writing a New Book? Here Are the Tools

AnarchistsToolchest
By: Michael Levin, eight time best selling author

Success leaves clues.  If you seek the tools for writing a New York Times self-help best seller, look no further than a new NYT best seller, called, appropriately enough, The Tools.

Phil Stutz and Barry Michels are Los Angeles therapists who have written an outstanding book encapsulating their approach to guiding their patients to successful living.  The book is a tutorial for people who want a better life.  It’s also a tutorial on how to organize and write a great book.  So let’s take a look at the tools Stutz and Michels use that you can put to work in your book.

1. Great title.  A title ought to be what the movie industry calls “high concept” – something you grasp and connect with immediately.  Who wouldn’t want tools?  And then it’s a great title because it makes the reader ask questions:  what tools?  Do I have these tools?  Do I need these tools?  What’s going on here?

2. Solid subtitle.  A subtitle must reveal the promise or “unique selling proposition” of the book clearly and powerfully.  Here, it’s “Transform Your Problems Into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity.”  Well, who wouldn’t want that?

3. Killer blurbs.  The title sells you on reading the subtitle.  The subtitle sells you on flipping the book over in your hands to read the blurbs.  And here you have Marianne Williamson and The New Yorker endorsing the coauthors, along with one other respected author and a top Hollywood client.  That’s the kind of third-party verification that sells books.

4. Chapter one asks a knockout question.  Why can’t therapists solve problems quickly…or at all?  Great question, right?  And then we get just enough of the authors’ backgrounds to know who they are.  They’re therapists profoundly dissatisfied with the limits of traditional therapy.  They tell of the pain they felt when their clients went away without solutions…and so they came up with a new approach.  The Tools.  So you have a problem that we can relate to…authors we can relate to…and the promise of a new solution.

5. Clear organizational plan.  One tool per chapter for the next five chapters, and then a couple of chapters to wrap things up.  Within each of the five chapters describing the tools, a vignette involving a patient, an explanation of the tool, a description of how to use the tool, and other uses for the tool.  Simple and clear.

6. Out-of-the-box “case studies.”  A foul-mouthed road comic.  A young, bitchy, sharply dressed fashion entrepreneur.  A gorgeous yet almost fatally insecure actress/model, afraid that her working class background keeps her from acceptance from the well-to-do West LA soccer moms.  They may be composites as opposed to real people, but they feel so real to the reader.  You get caught up in their stories.  You relate.  Stutz and Michels raise the bar in terms of how to craft case studies.  This is essential for anyone writing a self-help book, because these compelling stories keep us riveted to our seats so we’ll actually learn how the tools work.

Authors have it hard today.  Technology has shredded the average attention span.  Bookstores are a vanishing species.  Infinite entertainment options, or just simply playing with your iPhone, compete for leisure time.  So if you’re going to succeed as an author, put down the toys and pick up the tools…specifically the tools that Stutz and Michel provide in their excellent, and excellently planned and executed, book.

And if you aren’t planning on writing a self-help book, read it anyway.  The tools you’ll gain when you read The Tools will absolutely give you a better life.

New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank survivor Michael Levin runs www.BusinessGhost.com, and is a nationally acknowledged thought leader on the future of book publishing.

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Keeping Up With Google: Bing Launches New “Search Quality Insights” Series

by 

Want to understand better how Bing creates its search results? Bing has announced a new “Search Quality Insights” series to provide a more behind-the-scenes look at its search engine. You know, like “Search Quality Highlights” series that Google launched last December. What’s going on with these? And how does Bing’s latest post help Google on anti-trust grounds?

Google Seeks Transparency

In Google’s case, I view the Search Quality Highlights series as Google trying to deal with accusations, especially by those on the anti-trust front but even from places like the New York Times, that Google Search is some type of black box that’s all designed simply to favor Google’s own properties.

Of course, Google said nothing so explicit when it launched its series last December. Rather, it spoke generally about being transparent:

 For years now we’ve been blogging about significant algorithmicupdates like Panda and our recent freshness update. So, why do we need yet another blog series? 

We’ve been wracking our brains trying to think about how to make search even more transparent. The good news is that we make roughly 500 improvements in a given year, so there’s always more to share.

With this blog series, we’ll be highlighting many of the subtler algorithmic and visible feature changes we make. These are changes that aren’t necessarily big enough to warrant entire blog posts on their own.

The series actually had a soft-launch last November, before being formalized in December. Since then, we’ve been getting a monthly laundry-list of changes that Google’s made to its search algorithms, changes that weren’t deemed big enough to warrant their own blog posts by Google, though some might disagree.

For example, in Google’s latest post at the end of February, Google announced the latest of itsPanda Updates (anything Panda is generally big news), that it had dropped a method of link analysis (sparking all types of discussions among SEO folks about what was dropped) and added that its SafeSearch algorithm had been changed to make “irrelevant adult content” less likely to appear.

That SafeSearch change was directly responsible for causing searches on “santorum” at Google to no longer show a long-standing site defining “santorum” as a by-product of anal sex. It was a big change, worth of its own blog post I’d say, but instead it was relegated to being a bulletpoint.

Still, at least we did know some of the things going on, which is welcomed. And now we’re going to know more from Bing.

Bing Goes After Visiblity

Over at Bing, we’re told:

Today we are launching a new blog series we’re calling “Bing Search Quality Insights” aimed at giving you deeper insight into the algorithms, trends and people behind Bing. 

This blog is the first in a series that will take you behind the search box for an up close view into the core of the Bing search engine.

Quality improvements in Bing are often subtle but often those little changes are the result of years of research. In the coming weeks and months, you will hear from members of my team on a range of topics, from the complexities of social search and disambiguating spelling errors to whole page relevance and making search more personal.

We will also highlight the ideas and projects we have collaborated with colleagues from Microsoft Research and academia to advance the state of the art for our industry. We hope this will not only be useful information for our blog readers, but that they will spark conversations that help us all move the search industry forward.

Unlike Google, Bing doesn’t really have an anti-trust transparency issue to deal with. Rather, Bing has an invisibility issue. Bing seems largely invisible to those who are wanting to search the web. Bing can (and does) have some of the same problems that will launch a million blog posts about Google. But no one cares, if they happen on Bing.

As for consumers in general, while Bing has grown its market share, that’s come mainly by pulling people away from Bing’s partner Yahoo, not from Google. Perhaps the new series will help focus more attention from consumers on Bing, which would be good. Bing’s an excellent search engine that should be considered.

Bing’s First Post Helps Google

Ironically, the first post in Bing’s series — about “Whole Page Relevance” — will also help Google on the anti-trust front. It explains how Bing “blends” results from its vertical search engines like Bing Video, Bing News, Bing Maps and Bing Images along with web listings and direct answers through a system called “Answer Ranking.”

Google does exactly the same thing, though a system it calls “Universal Search.” Google’s system has come under intense pressure over the past two years as somehow “favoring” Google over its competitors, including attacks by Microsoft-backed FairSearch.

Now we’ve got a blog post from Microsoft explaining how it does exactly what Google does, something both Google and third-parties such as myself have pointed already. That makes it harder for some to attack Google over Universal Search, especially when Microsoft finally puts a name to what its own system is called.

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction – where my kids went to school

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

 

 

 

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh’s life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?

Your Brain on Computers

The Screen Generation

Articles in this series examine how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave.

Related

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Vishal Singh, 17, often chooses time on his computer over doing homework. Vishal, whose lighting gear is on the bed, is an aspiring filmmaker.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Students at Woodside High School are often reminded of the restrictions on their phones at school.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Allison Miller sends and receives 27,000 texts a month, carrying on multiple text conversations at a time.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Mr. Reilly, the principal, says that the unchecked use of devices can create a culture in which students are addicted to and lost in the virtual world.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Woodside introduced a popular audio course last year that uses digital tools to record music.

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

By all rights, Vishal, a bright 17-year-old, should already have finished the book, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” his summer reading assignment. But he has managed 43 pages in two months.

He typically favors Facebook, YouTube and making digital videos. That is the case this August afternoon. Bypassing Vonnegut, he clicks over to YouTube, meaning that tomorrow he will enter his senior year of high school hoping to see an improvement in his grades, but without having completed his only summer homework.

On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.

It is a tension on vivid display at Vishal’s school, Woodside High School, on a sprawling campus set against the forested hills of Silicon Valley. Here, as elsewhere, it is not uncommon for students to send hundreds of text messages a day or spend hours playing video games, and virtually everyone is on Facebook.

The principal, David Reilly, 37, a former musician who says he sympathizes when young people feel disenfranchised, is determined to engage these 21st-century students. He has asked teachers to build Web sites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia center.

He pushed first period back an hour, to 9 a.m., because students were showing up bleary-eyed, at least in part because they were up late on their computers. Unchecked use of digital devices, he says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.

“I am trying to take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games,” he says. “To a degree, I’m using technology to do it.”

The same tension surfaces in Vishal, whose ability to be distracted by computers is rivaled by his proficiency with them. At the beginning of his junior year, he discovered a passion for filmmaking and made a name for himself among friends and teachers with his storytelling in videos made with digital cameras and editing software.

He acts as his family’s tech-support expert, helping his father, Satendra, a lab manager, retrieve lost documents on the computer, and his mother, Indra, a security manager at the San Francisco airport, build her own Web site.

But he also plays video games 10 hours a week. He regularly sends Facebook status updates at 2 a.m., even on school nights, and has such a reputation for distributing links to videos that his best friend calls him a “YouTube bully.”

Several teachers call Vishal one of their brightest students, and they wonder why things are not adding up. Last semester, his grade point average was 2.3 after a D-plus in English and an F in Algebra II. He got an A in film critique.

“He’s a kid caught between two worlds,” said Mr. Reilly — one that is virtual and one with real-life demands.

Vishal, like his mother, says he lacks the self-control to favor schoolwork over the computer. She sat him down a few weeks before school started and told him that, while she respected his passion for film and his technical skills, he had to use them productively.

“This is the year,” she says she told him. “This is your senior year and you can’t afford not to focus.”

It was not always this way. As a child, Vishal had a tendency to procrastinate, but nothing like this. Something changed him.

Growing Up With Gadgets

When he was 3, Vishal moved with his parents and older brother to their current home, a three-bedroom house in the working-class section of Redwood City, a suburb in Silicon Valley that is more diverse than some of its elite neighbors.

Thin and quiet with a shy smile, Vishal passed the admissions test for a prestigious public elementary and middle school. Until sixth grade, he focused on homework, regularly going to the house of a good friend to study with him.

But Vishal and his family say two things changed around the seventh grade: his mother went back to work, and he got a computer. He became increasingly engrossed in games and surfing the Internet, finding an easy outlet for what he describes as an inclination to procrastinate.

“I realized there were choices,” Vishal recalls. “Homework wasn’t the only option.”

Several recent studies show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families. Jacob L. Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University who led some of the research, said that when adults were not supervising computer use, children “are left to their own devices, and the impetus isn’t to do homework but play around.”

Research also shows that students often juggle homework and entertainment. The Kaiser Family Foundation found earlier this year that half of students from 8 to 18 are using the Internet, watching TV or using some other form of media either “most” (31 percent) or “some” (25 percent) of the time that they are doing homework.

At Woodside, as elsewhere, students’ use of technology is not uniform. Mr. Reilly, the principal, says their choices tend to reflect their personalities. Social butterflies tend to be heavy texters and Facebook users. Students who are less social might escape into games, while drifters or those prone to procrastination, like Vishal, might surf the Web or watch videos.

The technology has created on campuses a new set of social types — not the thespian and the jock but the texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potato.

“The technology amplifies whoever you are,” Mr. Reilly says.

For some, the amplification is intense. Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying.

Most of the exchanges are little more than quick greetings, but they can get more in-depth, like “if someone tells you about a drama going on with someone,” Allison said. “I can text one person while talking on the phone to someone else.”

But this proficiency comes at a cost: she blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report.

“I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”

Some shyer students do not socialize through technology — they recede into it. Ramon Ochoa-Lopez, 14, an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school.

Escaping into games can also salve teenagers’ age-old desire for some control in their chaotic lives. “It’s a way for me to separate myself,” Ramon says. “If there’s an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, I’ll just go to my room and start playing video games and escape.”

With powerful new cellphones, the interactive experience can go everywhere. Between classes at Woodside or at lunch, when use of personal devices is permitted, students gather in clusters, sometimes chatting face to face, sometimes half-involved in a conversation while texting someone across the teeming quad. Others sit alone, watching a video, listening to music or updating Facebook.

Students say that their parents, worried about the distractions, try to police computer time, but that monitoring the use of cellphones is difficult. Parents may also want to be able to call their children at any time, so taking the phone away is not always an option.

Other parents wholly embrace computer use, even when it has no obvious educational benefit.

“If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world,” said John McMullen, 56, a retired criminal investigator whose son, Sean, is one of five friends in the group Vishal joins for lunch each day.

Sean’s favorite medium is video games; he plays for four hours after school and twice that on weekends. He was playing more but found his habit pulling his grade point average below 3.2, the point at which he felt comfortable. He says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice. Still, he says, video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else.

“Video games don’t make the hole; they fill it,” says Sean, sitting at a picnic table in the quad, where he is surrounded by a multimillion-dollar view: on the nearby hills are the evergreens that tower above the affluent neighborhoods populated by Internet tycoons. Sean, a senior, concedes that video games take a physical toll: “I haven’t done exercise since my sophomore year. But that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I still look the same.”

Sam Crocker, Vishal’s closest friend, who has straight A’s but lower SAT scores than he would like, blames the Internet’s distractions for his inability to finish either of his two summer reading books.

“I know I can read a book, but then I’m up and checking Facebook,” he says, adding: “Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.”

He concludes: “My attention span is getting worse.”

The Lure of Distraction

 

Some neuroscientists have been studying people like Sam and Vishal. They have begun to understand what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.

In an experiment at the German Sport University in Cologne in 2007, boys from 12 to 14 spent an hour each night playing video games after they finished homework.

On alternate nights, the boys spent an hour watching an exciting movie, like “Harry Potter” or “Star Trek,” rather than playing video games. That allowed the researchers to compare the effect of video games and TV.

The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Markus Dworak, a researcher who led the study and is now a neuroscientist at Harvard, said it was not clear whether the boys’ learning suffered because sleep was disrupted or, as he speculates, also because the intensity of the game experience overrode the brain’s recording of the vocabulary.

“When you look at vocabulary and look at huge stimulus after that, your brain has to decide which information to store,” he said. “Your brain might favor the emotionally stimulating information over the vocabulary.”

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.

Researchers say these studies have particular implications for young people, whose brains have more trouble focusing and setting priorities.

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” added Dr. Rich, who last month gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

Dr. Rich said in an interview that he was not suggesting young people should toss out their devices, but rather that they embrace a more balanced approach to what he said were powerful tools necessary to compete and succeed in modern life.

The heavy use of devices also worries Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is known for research showing that children are not as harmed by TV viewing as some researchers have suggested.

Multitasking using ubiquitous, interactive and highly stimulating computers and phones, Professor Anderson says, appears to have a more powerful effect than TV.

Like Dr. Rich, he says he believes that young, developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus.

“If you’ve grown up processing multiple media, that’s exactly the mode you’re going to fall into when put in that environment — you develop a need for that stimulation,” he said.

Vishal can attest to that.

“I’m doing Facebook, YouTube, having a conversation or two with a friend, listening to music at the same time. I’m doing a million things at once, like a lot of people my age,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll say: I need to stop this and do my schoolwork, but I can’t.”

“If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d focus more on school and be doing better academically,” he says. But thanks to the Internet, he says, he has discovered and pursued his passion: filmmaking. Without the Internet, “I also wouldn’t know what I want to do with my life.”

Clicking Toward a Future

 

The woman sits in a cemetery at dusk, sobbing. Behind her, silhouetted and translucent, a man kneels, then fades away, a ghost.

This captivating image appears on Vishal’s computer screen. On this Thursday afternoon in late September, he is engrossed in scenes he shot the previous weekend for a music video he is making with his cousin.

The video is based on a song performed by the band Guns N’ Roses about a woman whose boyfriend dies. He wants it to be part of the package of work he submits to colleges that emphasize film study, along with a documentary he is making about home-schooled students.

Now comes the editing. Vishal taught himself to use sophisticated editing software in part by watching tutorials on YouTube. He does not leave his chair for more than two hours, sipping Pepsi, his face often inches from the screen, as he perfects the clip from the cemetery. The image of the crying woman was shot separately from the image of the kneeling man, and he is trying to fuse them.

“I’m spending two hours to get a few seconds just right,” he says.

He occasionally sends a text message or checks Facebook, but he is focused in a way he rarely is when doing homework. He says the chief difference is that filmmaking feels applicable to his chosen future, and he hopes colleges, like the University of Southern California or the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, will be so impressed by his portfolio that they will overlook his school performance.

“This is going to compensate for the grades,” he says. On this day, his homework includes a worksheet for Latin, some reading for English class and an economics essay, but they can wait.

For Vishal, there’s another clear difference between filmmaking and homework: interactivity. As he edits, the windows on the screen come alive; every few seconds, he clicks the mouse to make tiny changes to the lighting and flow of the images, and the software gives him constant feedback.

“I click and something happens,” he says, explaining that, by comparison, reading a book or doing homework is less exciting. “I guess it goes back to the immediate gratification thing.”

The $2,000 computer Vishal is using is state of the art and only a week old. It represents a concession by his parents. They allowed him to buy it, despite their continuing concerns about his technology habits, because they wanted to support his filmmaking dream. “If we put roadblocks in his way, he’s just going to get depressed,” his mother says. Besides, she adds, “he’s been making an effort to do his homework.”

At this point in the semester, it seems she is right. The first schoolwide progress reports come out in late September, and Vishal has mostly A’s and B’s. He says he has been able to make headway by applying himself, but also by cutting back his workload. Unlike last year, he is not taking advanced placement classes, and he has chosen to retake Algebra II not in the classroom but in an online class that lets him work at his own pace.

His shift to easier classes might not please college admissions officers, according to Woodside’s college adviser, Zorina Matavulj. She says they want seniors to intensify their efforts. As it is, she says, even if Vishal improves his performance significantly, someone with his grades faces long odds in applying to the kinds of colleges he aspires to.

Still, Vishal’s passion for film reinforces for Mr. Reilly, the principal, that the way to reach these students is on their own terms.

Hands-On Technology

Big Macintosh monitors sit on every desk, and a man with hip glasses and an easygoing style stands at the front of the class. He is Geoff Diesel, 40, a favorite teacher here at Woodside who has taught English and film. Now he teaches one of Mr. Reilly’s new classes, audio production. He has a rapt audience of more than 20 students as he shows a video of the band Nirvana mixing their music, then holds up a music keyboard.

“Who knows how to use Pro Tools? We’ve got it. It’s the program used by the best music studios in the world,” he says.

In the back of the room, Mr. Reilly watches, thrilled. He introduced the audio course last year and enough students signed up to fill four classes. (He could barely pull together one class when he introduced Mandarin, even though he had secured iPads to help teach the language.)

“Some of these students are our most at-risk kids,” he says. He means that they are more likely to tune out school, skip class or not do their homework, and that they may not get healthful meals at home. They may also do their most enthusiastic writing not for class but in text messages and on Facebook. “They’re here, they’re in class, they’re listening.”

Despite Woodside High’s affluent setting, about 40 percent of its 1,800 students come from low-income families and receive a reduced-cost or free lunch. The school is 56 percent Latino, 38 percent white and 5 percent African-American, and it sends 93 percent of its students to four-year or community colleges.

Mr. Reilly says that the audio class provides solid vocational training and can get students interested in other subjects.

“Today mixing music, tomorrow sound waves and physics,” he says. And he thinks the key is that they love not just the music but getting their hands on the technology. “We’re meeting them on their turf.”

It does not mean he sees technology as a panacea. “I’ll always take one great teacher in a cave over a dozen Smart Boards,” he says, referring to the high-tech teaching displays used in many schools.

Teachers at Woodside commonly blame technology for students’ struggles to concentrate, but they are divided over whether embracing computers is the right solution.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Alan Eaton, a charismatic Latin teacher. He says that technology has led to a “balkanization of their focus and duration of stamina,” and that schools make the problem worse when they adopt the technology.

“When rock ’n’ roll came about, we didn’t start using it in classrooms like we’re doing with technology,” he says. He personally feels the sting, since his advanced classes have one-third as many students as they had a decade ago.

Vishal remains a Latin student, one whom Mr. Eaton describes as particularly bright. But the teacher wonders if technology might be the reason Vishal seems to lose interest in academics the minute he leaves class.

Mr. Diesel, by contrast, does not think technology is behind the problems of Vishal and his schoolmates — in fact, he thinks it is the key to connecting with them, and an essential tool. “It’s in their DNA to look at screens,” he asserts. And he offers another analogy to explain his approach: “Frankenstein is in the room and I don’t want him to tear me apart. If I’m not using technology, I lose them completely.”

Mr. Diesel had Vishal as a student in cinema class and describes him as a “breath of fresh air” with a gift for filmmaking. Mr. Diesel says he wonders if Vishal is a bit like Woody Allen, talented but not interested in being part of the system.

But Mr. Diesel adds: “If Vishal’s going to be an independent filmmaker, he’s got to read Vonnegut. If you’re going to write scripts, you’ve got to read.”

Back to Reading Aloud

Vishal sits near the back of English IV. Marcia Blondel, a veteran teacher, asks the students to open the book they are studying, “The Things They Carried,” which is about the Vietnam War.

“Who wants to read starting in the middle of Page 137?” she asks. One student begins to read aloud, and the rest follow along.

To Ms. Blondel, the exercise in group reading represents a regression in American education and an indictment of technology. The reason she has to do it, she says, is that students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.

“How can you have a discussion in class?” she complains, arguing that she has seen a considerable change in recent years. In some classes she can count on little more than one-third of the students to read a 30-page homework assignment.

She adds: “You can’t become a good writer by watching YouTube, texting and e-mailing a bunch of abbreviations.”

As the group-reading effort winds down, she says gently: “I hope this will motivate you to read on your own.”

It is a reminder of the choices that have followed the students through the semester: computer or homework? Immediate gratification or investing in the future?

Mr. Reilly hopes that the two can meet — that computers can be combined with education to better engage students and can give them technical skills without compromising deep analytical thought.

But in Vishal’s case, computers and schoolwork seem more and more to be mutually exclusive. Ms. Blondel says that Vishal, after a decent start to the school year, has fallen into bad habits. In October, he turned in weeks late, for example, a short essay based on the first few chapters of “The Things They Carried.” His grade at that point, she says, tracks around a D.

For his part, Vishal says he is investing himself more in his filmmaking, accelerating work with his cousin on their music video project. But he is also using Facebook late at night and surfing for videos on YouTube. The evidence of the shift comes in a string of Facebook updates.

Saturday, 11:55 p.m.: “Editing, editing, editing”

Sunday, 3:55 p.m.: “8+ hours of shooting, 8+ hours of editing. All for just a three-minute scene. Mind = Dead.”

Sunday, 11:00 p.m.: “Fun day, finally got to spend a day relaxing… now about that homework…”

Malia Wollan contributed reporting.
 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,761 other followers

%d bloggers like this: