New! My Popular Boston Globe Article on Uncertainty Chosen by Top French News Magazine as a "Best of the Foreign Press 2021"

The Expansion of Experience – The Home/Work Blur Today

Just got back from the Business Marketing Association’s annual conference in Chicago, where I spoke on a general session panel entitled “The @Work State of Mind.” Rick Segal, president of the ad firm GyroHSR, moderated.

The boundaries between home and work are gone – that’s not news. But we’re still dealing with the fallout. At BMA, I noted that the division between these spheres was a short-lived Industrial Age experiment. Remember, the weekend and the vacation are recent (and fading) inventions.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re returning to an agrarian past. In the pre-Industrial past, the work-life blend stemmed from a restriction of human experience. People were rooted, and hewn to biological or cultural time flows. Now, work-life integration is due to an expansion of experience – a collapse of distance and a rush past the shackles of the clock. We’re free-floaters, for both better and worse.

We’re in constant “on” mode, a tempo that is inspiring and exhausting. Fellow panelist Eduardo Conrado, chief marketing officer at Motorola Solutions, told of being home, yet “snacking” on information all the time. A new study reports that 30 percent of mobile workers wake up at night to check email. (A blurring of sleep and wake?)

We’re having trouble finding the time and resources to pay attention deeply. Dalton Conley of NYU pointed out research showing that multitasking affects memory. When we juggle while trying to learn, we can’t recall the newly learned information deeply, and so cannot transfer this shallow learning to new situations. The opportunity is squandered.

Three-quarters of workers say they don’t have enough time with their children, even while studies show that parental time spent on childcare is at record highs. Why the disconnect? Multitasking. People feel time-starved, because they’re with their children, yet mentally away. As panelist Johnna Torsone, HR director at Pitney Bowes, pointed out, we have wonderful new ways to connect; she skypes with her West Coast grandson. But we can’t nurture deep relations without face time, and without at least sometimes preserving what I call the integrity of the moment. It’s essential to our humanity.

The implications for marketers? First, nurture ways to step in and out of the flow. Being immersed, hurried, interrupted and reactive is antithetical to deep thought and relations – and informed decision-making. Second, highlight stories. Narrative is more important than ever as essential form of meaning-making in a complex society. It’s a terra firma in this free-floating world. As Jerome Bruner notes, stories are mankind’s way of  wresting meaning from surprise – from the times when something went awry.

Gyro kindly bought 100 copies of Distracted as a giveaway. As I signed them, people expressed their concern again and again for their children’s future. A world without deep focus is untenable, and we know it.

Information Overload and Our Reliance on the Machine

Information overload is a problem that’s hard to pick apart. Haven’t we been deluged with information for hundreds of years? How can we turn down the data spigot without losing out on opportunities? Is anybody thinking creatively on this front?

A new book, Overload! How Too Much Information if Hazardous to Your Organization, by Jonathan Spira valiantly grapples with these issues. Spira is chief executive of the research firm Basex, and he’s been a passionate crusader against such deluge through his surveys and writings. Sometimes, Spira’s book itself slips into overload mode; a reader doesn’t need quite so much convincing that the problem is real. But get past the fretting and the many barometers of overload, and the book has numerous eye-opening moments – and practical suggestions.

Spira is at his best, for instance, when tackling email. He was one of the first to see its dangers. Like rabbits overrunning Australia, email breeds astronomically, especially through thoughtless “reply all” responses and equally thoughtless over-lengthy content. Spira fights back by offering a brief preface of his message at the top of an email, a tactic called “Bottom Line Up Front” that Spira borrowed from a former military officer. (Col. Peter Marksteiner – Does Twitter Match The Mission?) Such small, elegant solutions are crucial for handling overload.

It seems to me that the issue overall boils down to a two-part challenge.

First, quality and quantity.  In our daily life, humans endlessly endeavor to parse out the relevant from volumes of information hitting us physically and cognitively. Overload becomes an issue when the pace and volume of data exceeds our biological ability to sift and sort it. The result? Stress, paralyzed decision-making, and shallow thought, as Spira notes.

Consider online searching – a time when the human should take charge, sculpting a question designed to pull relevant data from the machine. Instead, people don’t take the time to formulate a careful query, and so are deluged with trivia. Their mistake, it seems to me, is to hope that the machine will do all the thinking.Instead, we need the tenacity to get past the first page of mostly paid results and the first phase of frustration and confusion endemic to research. We need to ask ourselves, are we thinking and reflecting throughout our data-driven day?

Spira’s research has found that knowledge workers spend just 5 percent of their days on thought and reflection, down from 12 percent of the day in 2008. That slippage is the true key to fighting overload, I believe. That’s why reflection – our most crucial form of perspective-taking – is the subject of my next book.

Stay tuned!

Book Note: What am I reading right now? Lastingness: The Art of Old Age by Nicholas Delbanco, a look at how creators stay productive in their later years.

Sculpting The Second Half of Life

I recently attended an intriguing dinner in Brooklyn Heights, initially set up to talk about the gift and burden of our longer lives.

The impetus was a visit by Jay Goldfarb, an American who runs a healing therapies retreat center in Switzerland. (As we nibbled on cheese and crackers, we talked about the last brown bear left in his part of the Alps.) Goldfarb recently created the Legacy of Wisdom project, an online compendium of video interviews with important thinkers from Mary Catherine Bateson to Ram Dass.

Goldfarb’s mission is age-old: preserving knowledge for future generations. But our new longevity now colors this quest. So many more of us will live to 80, 90 or 100 in good health. How can we collectively and individually harness the power of these added years? How can we ensure that the second half of life is meaningful, giving and “worthwhile” – by whatever definition we give to that term?

As I look around, I see many in my 50-something generation peering into the future, and seeing a frightening void, not a gift. They see a society that still does not value older minds. They feel economically insecure, and worry how they will support themselves with dignity during multiple future decades. Tackling these fears will be part of the challenge of cultivating the newly elongated second half of life.

The delicious grilled fish dinner was generously hosted by Mary and Tom Rothschild at their apartment overlooking the East River. As the founder of the non-profit Healthy Media Choices, Mary does pioneering work helping families, children and educators become more intentional about their use of media. Her husband Tom, a Quaker, is a mediation attorney who has written thoughtfully about the importance of silence.

Richard Lewis attended, too. He is a gentle poet and teacher whom I’ve long wanted to meet. Through his Touchstone Center, he’s spent decades helping children connect to their imaginations, through nature. We looked at one of the tiny seashells that Lewis uses in his work. Each child becomes a caretaker of this visitor from the sea; the shell is a jumping off point from which he/she can imagine worlds beyond their own. The essence of Lewis’ wide-ranging work, it seems to me, is reuniting children with a sense of possibility.

I didn’t take notes, but the memory of this dinner lingers. The hurried, pressured, test-driven nature of schooling today concerned us all.  Do children have time to daydream and play, spend time outdoors and chase a stray thought? Mary raised my use of the term “dark age” in the subtitle of Distracted, meaning an era that often is technologically inventive, but leads to cultural losses over time. I spoke of technology as potentially dehumanizing, and Jay pressed me to articulate what I meant. I responded that we are patterning ourselves after the machine, prizing point-and-click, easy answers and shallow communications. “We are not gadgets,” to paraphrase Jaron Lanier.

Into the evening, we talked about the astonishing scientific potential within our grasp. What could and should be passed on to future generations? What is wisdom? At one compelling point in the evening, Richard Lewis told us that his 18-year-old daughter recently had promised to carry on his decades-long work via the Touchstone Center.

A timely book inspired me to blog about this spring dinner. In Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Father Richard Rohr writes about finding our way in later life. In the first half, we are preoccupied with achievement and performance – and finding our identity. Later, we need to find the task within the task – to understand why we’re doing what we do. In particular, we grow by tapping our failings, a challenge that many people refuse to face. “We are a ‘first-half-of-life culture,’ largely concerned about surviving successfully,” he writes. His message originates in a Christian perspective, yet serves us all, I believe. Remember this, Rohr writes, “your second journey is yours to walk or to avoid.”

Let’s get walking. Are you game?

Rebutting a Call for Shorter Attention Spans

Last week, theater critic Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal wrote a column, “Get to the Good Part” – arguing that shorter attention spans would lead to more concise art. I wrote a letter in reply.

Here’s the full letter, which was cut down a bit on the paper:

Terry Teachout is mistaken. Shortened attention spans have nothing to do with the production of succinct, well-conceived, well-paced entertainment.

Ask any neuroscientist or psychologist – or writer. If you are attention-deficient, you’re more likely to fall prey to distraction and the tangential. You’re more impulsive and less able to plan ahead. You tend to hopscotch through life, and often are unable to follow the trail of a thought or idea, pin it down and painstakingly turn that thought into a creative breakthrough. As a creator or critic or spectator of the arts, you’re too often stuck on the surface of life – if you have too short an attention span.

Teachout rightly advocates for succinct, well-thought artworks. No one, in the past or in our era, wants wooden, dull entertainment or literature. Humans have always aspired to cut the fat from our creations, and tell stories so riveting that they stop time and grab others’ focus.

But it’s wrong to imply that anything quick and brief is smart, while anything slow and lengthy is dumb. Older sitcoms, classic plays, and discursive masterworks take time to imbibe and digest – and perhaps offer a depth and nuance that our adrenaline-infused, briefer forms of entertainment cannot. The point is, we need both  – and we especially need to be able to focus deeply in order to create and enjoy such slower, longer fare. Attention unlocks the door to the world beyond the fast and brief. It gives us the ability to get past digressions and superfluity.

Our impatient age seeks to cut to the chase, but in so doing, we too often miss out on the journey that is life and art. A deeper, longer attention span allows us the clarity to grasp the beauty of the fast and the slow, the brief and the long-lasting.

Future of the Family

Long ago, I applied for a grant from a big, famous foundation to study technology’s impact on work-family, as it was called back then. I got a generous grant – but also a caution from the director that ‘technology doesn’t really have anything to do with work-family balance.’ How many times have I looked back and been amused by that assumption.

Fast forward to late 2010, when I spoke at an Emory University conference on “Imagining the Future of the Family”. It was an interesting gathering, and included anthropologists Chuck Darrah, Peter StrombergMark Auslander, historian Stephanie Coontz and among others, and Miss Manners! And it was an honor to be the only journalist invited to present.

Here (belatedly) are my remarks, abbreviated just by a bit:

Let’s imagine the future. What will family togetherness look like in an increasingly technological age? And what are the trends today that will be the building blocks of family life tomorrow?

In the great tradition of EM Forster and HG Wells and William Gibson, I’d like to start considering these questions by offering a little bit of futuristic, science fiction.

Picture an American family in the year 2035. It’s breakfast time on a Friday morning.

The mother, Eve, is swabbing her 8 –year-old son’s cheek, to get his cortisol reading. Although she can easily buy a digital machine to do the same work, Eve uses an old-fashioned “Stress Test” strip – she likes the retro feel.

Oops – it’s high today! Eve gives her son a sympathetic look. But he’s on his Blackberry, and listening to his iPod, so he doesn’t notice his mom’s concern.

It’s been a stressful week for Ben. The family’s robot dog, Zip, is in the shop for repairs, and Ben misses him terribly. Plus, Ben failed his weekly “focus” test in school. He’d rather do anything than sit and meditate. But that’s the lynchpin of the new mandatory attention curriculum. Latin is gone – focus is in.

Eve gives Ben a kiss on the head, and starts to hurry off to work. But her husband Rick walks into the kitchen, so she takes a minute to sync the weekend’s schedule with him.

“Do you want to invite your mother to dinner Sunday?” asks Eve.

The family has a new Skype-model dinner table. The end of the table is a screen that folds up, so that they can include a virtual guest at dinner. Grandma loves to be invited, although it’s hard to really include her in the conversation, given her touch of deafness and the slight camera lag.

Rick nods yes. They hold up their Blackberries – the machines kiss – and the invitation is sent — since the PDAs were on “listening capacity.” Rick then goes back to sifting his emails – he’s had 96 new ones since getting out of the shower. And he keeps one eye on the tv – which doubles as a microwave and a wall safe. That’s where the family keeps its precious collection of passwords. There are far too many for any family member to recall.

Where are we? We’re at home with the Morgen family. And what’s the backdrop to their life? What are the dominant trends today that will likely affect family life in 2035?

First, DATA-STREAMS. Floods of information. The home is a porous place.

And a noisy place.

More than two thirds of children aged six and under live in homes where the tv is on most or all of the time. Often, no one’s watching. The steady hum of the tv is somehow comforting, especially at night. Why? According to Emory anthopologist Carol Worthman, ancient humans gathered together for safety and sociability in the evening. She speculates in her research on the evolution of sleep that the chatter of the tv may cue us to feel that people are around, so we are safe.

Today, the background tv, however, may undercut real time togetherness, according to research by Dan Anderson at UMass/Amherst. In homes with the tv on most of the time, parental-child interaction falls by 20 percent, and toddlers show less focus in their play.

The home is noisy in a second sense. Noise – as you know – is also a technical term meaning “Irregular fluctuations that accompany an electrical signal but are not part of it and tend to obscure it.” Think of the electrical signal as “family cohesion” and the irregular fluctuations – noise – as the multiple, media streams coming into the home.

Often, household members use media to collaborate. They play computer games together, play a match of Wii tennis, build a town in second life. A level of absorption and engagement can be constructed within the sphere of the technology. At times, media can serve as a post-modern hearth, a potential gathering point in the home.

But at the same time, media is often experienced individually – due to its portability and level of customization. Today, children are exposed to 7.38 hours of media, including music, each day. Three quarters have an iPod, up from 18 percent in 2004. Nearly 40 percent of children have a tv or DVD player in their car. More than 70 percent have a tv in their bedroom. These devices present as many opportunities for separation as for congregation.

Parental work-life spillover, meanwhile, keeps adults fused to their own relentless data-streams. A recent survey found that U.S. professionals spend half their workday receiving and managing information. Half said if information keeps increasing, they will reach a “breaking point.” Hyperbole? Perhaps. But expectations of accessibility keep ascending.

In a study of information supply and demand, University of Michigan media technology professor Russell Neuman recently estimated that sources of information have increased 2000 times since the 1960s. And most people he’s interviewed say they are happy with that abundance.

Yet these media “riches” are a pressure point for the family. They change the nature of presence in profound ways. Media is escaping from the box. It’s personal, portable and environmental. It’s both the landscape we inhabit and a biological prosthetic.

Technologists today speak in terms of push and pull media – depending on whether a data-point is requested by a client or streamed to the user. Email is pull, so is a Google search. TV ads are push; once you sign up, you keep getting a stream of messages – despite the mute button.

Perhaps another way to think about the media is in terms of whether it tends to push the family together – or pull the family apart. This is a tug of war that is important to watch.

Let’s return for a minute to our Morgen family.

Eve returns home that Friday evening at 6 p.m. She calls out a hello, but no one answers. (Zip is in the shop, she remembers.) She is too exhausted to check the GPS on her son Ben, or that of her 12-year-old stepdaughter Liz, who’s coming for the weekend.

Instead, Eve heads to the “womb-room” – the only place in the house that is disconnected from the Net. The walls are screens that show virtual landscapes – she presses ocean, and is at a beach, listening to a seagull’s cry and the soothing rush of a wave. These womb-rooms are the most fashionable additions to homes these days.

Eve pulls out a print-out of the family’s weekend activities that she’d brought home from work. Ever since her therapist diagnosed “dimanchophobia” – that is, fear of an unstructured Sunday – Eve is careful to keep the family busy. Yet she and Rick also yearn for those few moments when the family is truly together, talking and having fun.  So she is keeping an eye out for a chance at bio-interactivity, what used to be called face time.

From the printout, she determines that the family will be in the same room for only 22 minutes all weekend. That’s during Sunday dinner. Instantly, she decides on a “black-out” meal – with a flip of a switch, she can regulate the connectivity of the family’s gadgets in any room or the whole house. A black-out shuts off all incoming texts, emails, and phone calls, although still allowing the Skype table to work.

Liz, the stepdaughter, will be upset that her “bf implant” – an open connection to her best friend – will be disrupted for a little while. But Eve will stand her ground. Togetherness is more than a text message, Eve firmly believes.

Moving into the kitchen to get a cup of tea, Eve sees a text from Ben. He’s upstairs, and messaging her: “I’m hungry. What’s for a snack?”

Turn back to the present, and again, what are the trends now that will build family life in the future? Along with DATA, families are being shaped by SOCIAL CONNECTIVITY. This is another facet of the question of porosity.

As sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng writes, “Through each act of (in) accessibility, we establish or end, defend, challenge and/or change the nature of a given relationship.”

This is not new. But what’s new is the level of management that’s demanded in the digital age. Networks are broadened. We are awash in weak ties. And connectivity is instant, and potentially constant. This produces what Kenneth Gergen called the “relational self” or Barry Wellman calls “networked individualism.”  Consider, a quarter of teens check their Facebook pages 10 times a day. Family ties both profit from and are in enormous competition with these networks.

According to research from UCLA, children at day’s end don’t acknowledge a returning dad 40 percent of the time. And distraction is seen in one-third of couple reunions.

Does this matter? Yes. According to anthropologists, a moment of reunion is an acknowledgment of the other, a signal that you are someone. A greeting is a key opportunity for shared intimacy and one of few rituals shared by all societies.

Perhaps it’s natural that threshold moments today are optional. Instant connection allows for more constant togetherness between family members. Traveling parents now shared bedtime stories by Skype. Judges order virtual custody visits.

But if virtual relationships are available at the push of a button, why rush at day’s end to find about another’s day? Always-on connectivity may, as Naomi Baron argues, signal the end of anticipation

Secondly, when family members are together for those 22 minutes on Sunday, their own pulsing networks can puncture their physical presence. When we are in the same room together, attention is likely fragmented. We are multitasking each other, and as much research shows, we don’t do “dual-task” well.

The jury is still out on many of these questions. Half of parents spend some time each week using the Internet with other family members.One study found no differences between Internet users and non-users on how much family members shared ideas. On the other hand, families with multiple communications devices are less likely to eat dinner together. And high Internet use among teens is associated with worse relationships with parents and less family cohesion, even when personality is controlled for.

Families are scrambling to find time together – even in small doses – and they will continue to do so. But the “pull” of media is enormous, and coming together is increasingly a punctured, fragmented, brief experience. How families handle this challenge is of utmost importance to our society as a whole.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer a caveat – and one or two last predictions.

It’s hard to predict the future, especially re technology. So often we underestimate or overestimate the impact of new devices on our culture.

In the late 19th century, telephone companies fought the use of telephone for social purposes. Acting on assumptions from the telegraph age, viewed it as business instrument.

On other hand, we’ve heard predictions that painted gadgets as more powerful than they are. In 1909, one commentator wrote:  “Children’s minds are being poisoned and their morals are corrupted by movies.”

Why?

First, the bigger their place in our lives, the harder it is to objectify tech tools. They become “unseen,” or as Dewey said, recognized but not perceived.

Second, technology is a two-way street. It’s a negotiation, as Claude Fisher says. Not just an input. Our tools shape us, just as we invent and shape them to our purposes. Tech artifacts may function like myths, in that “they serve as rationalizing models for the cultures that produce them.”

So predictions are difficult.

BUT looking ahead is what humans are born to do. That’s what imagination and dreaming and planning are all about. Without these skills, our species wouldn’t survive. So I’ll hazard one last prediction.

I believe we might, in another generation, see technology not in terms of tool use or even lifestyle, but as an environmental issue.

We might look back on the Industrial Age as a time marked by the erection of new and idealized boundaries between home and work.

We might see the early Digital Age – our time – as an era when we worked a bit too furiously to tear down the boundaries. And make our homes and family lives vibrant but porous.

And we might someday see the Middle Digital Age as a time of climate control. When families like the Morgans endeavor to create zones of focus – through womb rooms and blackout dinners – so they can enjoy a pocket of bio-interactivity.

In future, technology can’t be put back in the box. But families will, I cautiously predict, want to carve out room for togetherness.

Perhaps in future we won’t even talk about work-life balance. We’ll instead talk about balancing action and contemplation. Or juggling our humanity and our machinery. There may be new types of conflict and spillover and synergy.

All I know for sure is, we can’t get ahead of our biology.

Because when people come together physically – as we are – attention is just a starting point. After that, comes the difficult, complex, work of synchronicity and listening and empathy and understanding. And if those ideals are realized even in part, that’s when family connectivity really gets going. Face time is still – as MIT’s Sherry Turkle has observed – the gold standard of human relations.

New York Times and “Hooked on Gadgets”

Good news – our collective public discussions about technology may be maturing. I see evidence every day that we’re beginning to have nuanced, balanced discussions on distraction, overload and hyper-connectivity. Exhibit A: see the article in today’s NY Times, “Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price.”

As Carolyn Marvin wrote in her classic book When Old Technologies Were New, public conversations around new technologies are first dominated by the engineers and marketers who brought these inventions into being. In other words, the geeks rule. This occurred in the age of the telephone and light bulb, and it’s been true in recent decades. That’s one reason why I was determined in the 1990s to begin to write about the social impact of technology on humanity. Non-technologists deserve a place at the table as we shape our relationship with the Machine. I’m not a Luddite simply if I’m skeptical about technology.

To Matt Richtel’s good article, I’d add a couple of points. First, in different eras in history, societies prize specific types of attention. In the Industrial Age, people began to venerate rigid, unbending focus. “Pay attention” became the mantra, because humans needed to adapt to bureaucratic and mechanized ways of living and working in schools, offices and even at home. The life of the farmer or craftsman – with free-flowing schedules and human-centric rhythms – was receding. Instead, people lived to the pace of the clock, the bell and the machine.

Recently, the pendulum has swung the other way. We have been worshipping split-focus, multitasking and other time-splicing. We’ve been trying to supercede the fetters of both biology (sleep, rest) and the clock (agenda, schedules) by multitasking – by layering time. And so we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that splitting our focus – distraction – is the new ticket to efficiency.

Can we discover the middle ground? We need to multitask, skim and split our focus in order to deal with the oceans of possibility at our fingertips via the web. We also need rigid focus – aka concentration – in order to go deeply in problem-solving and relations. But let’s start thinking of these various types of attention as options, as arrows in our quiver, rather than as zero-sum, winning-or-losing cognitive styles.

Mind in the Making _ A Conversation with Ellen Galinsky

Last week, I wrote about Ellen Galinsky’s important new book , Mind in the Making, on the seven life skills that every child needs today. Recently, I caught up with Galinsky and asked a bit more about the book’s genesis and her views on learning. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

MJ – What vision of learning did you have for the book?

EG – We’re born engaged in learning, because it’s basically a survival skill. If we couldn’t figure out the world, we wouldn’t survive. For a long time, we’ve understood learning as the acquisition of content and facts. More recently, there’s been a push for learning skills that will help young people when they reach the workforce. In writing the book, I was particularly interested in the kinds of learning that can help children now and will also help them in the future. I thought a lot about moving from a 20th-century to a 21st-century view of learning. We get stuck in an either/or situation: either content, or skills. To me, the point is, it has to be both.

MJ – In what other ways are you trying to broaden our definitions of learning?

EG – When parents are asked what they want for their children, most say they want them to be caring, contributing people who have meaningful lives. They don’t want them just to become successful in academics (which of course is important, too). The skills I’m writing about are for a well- rounded person, not just a one-size-fits-all person. A person on Twitter wrote me that the reason she likes the book is that: “Your message is clear: The self-motivated, independent children who are resourceful and know how to cooperate are our future.”

MJ – It seems to me that the seven skills you’ve highlighted are also fairly low-tech, and I love that about the book. They’re based on simple, everyday activities that any parent can inspire and guide.

EG – I remember meeting a low-income parent who said that she wants the same things for her child as a rich parent can give their children. In writing the book, it was important to me that whatever I was suggesting be something that any parent could use for children of any age. Often it is the simple things done differently – “simon says” played the opposite way – that promote learning. I will be appalled if people take this and make stuff that parents have to buy. Of course, it’s the job of marketing and product developers to find things to sell us. But we’ve been promised quick fixes with Baby Einstein or Brainy Bay: “do this, and then you will have a child who’s a genius.” We’ve been through that, and hopefully we’ve learned from that. Learning should be fun. If it’s just drill and practice for your 2 year old, that’s not good. I used to watch in horror as a friend drilled her baby: “This is a lesson about balls.” As I watched, I was thinking, “Just let him explore the ball. Ask him questions that promote his interest.” What I found consistently is that children are born with all the right equipment to gain knowledge. They have what I call in the book an object sense, a numbers sense, a people sense. The brain is wired to understand knowledge in specific ways.

MJ – How have our views on childhood changed in regards to learning? We used to have a Lockean view of children, that they are a “tabula rasa” or blank slate, needing to be filled with facts. Or we had a perspective inspired by the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that children are naturally gifted with curiosity and other traits that become devalued by schooling. Where are we now in our views of children?

EG – We have had a burst in knowledge about child development, particularly with neuroscience and with the ability to study children’s learning from many different disciplines. This knowledge has taken us beyond the “tabula rasa” or “put them in the sun, and water them and they’ll grow” viewpoints. There are no genetic expressions without experience, nor vice versa. For example, we used to think there are nine different types of temperament, and children are born with one of them. Now the latest thinking on temperament is that children vary in terms of how they react to new experiences, and how they regulate their responses. It’s much more of a process than a personality type. We also now know that children’s brains are wired in ways that enable them to grasp complicated knowledge. For example, work by Jenny Saffran at the University of Wisconsin shows that babies have the ability to grasp which sounds in their language or languages go together. It is a process of detecting patterns in what she calls a “sea of sound.” But we have to build on this knowledge to promote the learning of life skills and content.

MJ- The idea that learning opportunities are all around us, every minute of the day is both inspiring and perhaps daunting to parents today who are so anxious about raising children the “right way.” What would you say about today’s anxious parents?

EG – There are so many people who criticize parents about their desire to do the right thing. As parents we’ve always started out wanting to be perfect and that probably is a good thing. We then realize we have to be good enough. I have studied parental growth and development and think that that needs to be understood by all those who write about parents – and by parents ourselves. When we reach the ‘good enough’ stage, we tend to relax and enjoy the process more.

MJ – What surprised you as you researched and wrote the book?

EG – Although I have an extensive background in child development and its research, creating this book felt like such a learning adventure. That to me was the biggest challenge of the book: to capture in words the mystery, the excitement, the wrong turns researchers made, to tell the story of researchers as people. That’s why I told the story of Dan Stern, who became a baby researcher because, as a toddler himself who could speak only Czech, he spent months in an English-speaking hospital, where he learned to watch behavior, since he didn’t understand language.

When I was getting ready to start to write a chapter, I would immerse myself in reading the interviews I had done with researchers. I would immerse myself in the research, then I’d go find out things I didn’t know. Then I would put it all aside and write the story I was discovering as an outline. As I was writing the outline, I was seeing so many new connections. Those connections always surprised and delighted me.

Mind in the Making

Ellen Galinsky’s new book isn’t for the faint-of-heart. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs is inspiring, even joyful, and an essential handbook for any parent. But it’s provocative. In essentially teaching adults how to instill a love of learning in children, Galinsky also may change how we see learning – for the better.

Consider the seven skills that Galinsky chooses: focus, perspective-taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges and self-directed learning. These essential and complex skills are a far cry from the reading, writing and arithmetic goals and drills that still dominate teach-to-the-test schools. They’re also a gentle, crucial reminder of the importance of “upgrading the human” in a world mesmerized by computational, tech-driven and store-bought lessons. Finally, as Galinsky notes, these seven skills are capabilities for lifelong learning.

“These skills are not only important for children; we as adults need them just as much as children do,” she writes. “And, in fact, we have to practice them ourselves to promote them in our children.”

That true of perspective taking. We teach children etiquette and problem-solving, even discussion and debate. But rarely do we help kids learn how to understand the perspectives of others, despite the importance of this skill to social relations, school learning, and even a child’s sense of security. After all, understanding how other people operate helps you get along with peers, parents, teachers and later with bosses. It’s the starting point of lifelong “emotional intelligence.”

By highlighting the work of top researchers, Galinsky shows how parents can teach perspective-taking, and how infants and toddlers are astonishingly ready to learn. Even 6-month-olds have a rough sense of others’ goals and intentions, and 18-month-olds understand that people can have different tastes than they do. Cultivating this nascent skill can be simple: the kids of parents who talk about people’s feelings more, have better perspective-taking skills.

Galinsky isn’t the first to begin thinking about new literacies for the digital age. I recently discovered the important work of Guy Claxton, a UK professor who argues that we have to prepare students for lifelong learning by teaching them dispositions – such as curiosity, courage or reflection.

Or consider the words of the new Rhode Island School of Design president, digital designer John Maeda: “I sense a real shift going on in the world from the global and technological back to the local, the human and the authentic. … Policymakers and employers should take note: the power of the visual, the tactile, the nonlinear – of the artful, open-minded thinking – is something that we can no longer afford to discount.”

These important thinkers all understand that “how” we learn is as crucial as “what” we learn. And the impact of this change in mindset is enormous, as Galinsky’s compilation of research shows repeatedly. Focus can predict literacy, vocabulary and math skills in preschoolers. Rich, idea-laden talk between parents and children is correlated with higher IQ at age three. Motivated learners see setbacks as chances to try harder or use different strategies. They don’t “wilt” in the face of challenges.

Again and again, I was surprised and delighted by these and other research findings in Mind in the Making. They underscore the growing realization today that babies and children are highly capable creatures, ready and eager to learn. As Galinsky teaches us, we all need to be their partners in learning.

Next Post: A Q and A with Ellen Galinsky

Obama and Distraction

“Information becomes a distraction, a diversion… ” With those few words, President Obama recently created a stir about technology’s effect on our lives.

During his commencement speech at Hampton University, Obama said: You’re coming of age in a 24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments – some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter. And with iPods and IPads and Xboxes and PlayStations – none of which I know how to work – information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation. … We can’t stop these changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them.”

Bloggers lambasted the president as a “technophobic old fogy” and implied hypocrite for critiquing the very gadgets that were used to propel him to office. But many technorati were so shocked by his seeming criticism of the gadgetry that they missed the president’s important points about our 24/7 media environment. (And perhaps some of the grads missed these points, too, given that at least a few right behind him on the podium were texting during his remarks. Check it out on YouTube.)

First, was he really criticizing iPads? No, he wasn’t singling out gadgets or calling them “bad” or “good.” He was citing the tools that bit by byte in total create an escapable 24/7 info flow that often distracts us from what’s important in life. Luddite? No, Obama was taking an important, needed stand on a trend that, as he said, puts “new pressure on our country and on our democracy.” Simply put, deluges of accessible info don’t automatically produce good thinking. Tech-fluency doesn’t always equate with the ability to create knowledge. We are mistaken if we think that simply having the tools and the access to information will put our country and our young ahead in coming years.

Why? First, being barraged by info makes people “check out” – they are literally paralyzed by choice. That’s been proven again and again in psych studies. This is one reason why whatever pops up first on Google is “good enough” for many of us. One small but in-depth study by the Associated Press found that consumers 18-34 were “snacking on the news,” unable to go beyond barrage of daily sound bites and headlines – despite a hunger for a deeper understanding of current events.

Second, ease of access is not an end point. To read or research or think critically involves discomfort – confusion, uncertainty, effort. And those are precisely the kinds of states of mind that are devalued in today’s point and click world. When we’re literally enveloped in information, it’s easy to become sated with what comes easily. And it’s easy to gravitate to the fluff – the celebrity or self-help trivia that diverts us from learning how to green the earth or battle racism. Obama was correct: info-tainment is the new soma.

Finally, the info-stream can’t help us, if we can barely pay attention. It’s important to remember that the personal context of our information-gathering is splintered, fractured and hence, corrosive to learning. We rarely pay attention to one thing, so it’s no wonder we can’t separate the wheat from the chaff in the info-floods. The students texting behind Obama’s back are a sad emblem of our inability to focus on the thorniest problems of our day – and on each other.

I’m not trying to pick on students in general; most that day were obviously riveted and engaged. Besides, haven’t we always tuned out when we’re tired or bored? Absolutely. Haven’t students always passed notes or whispered during lectures? Of course. We didn’t invent inattention in 2010.

But watch the texters listen to Obama – laughing as he made a serious point, eyes glazed over as he spoke of the pressures facing educators and students in the 21st century. Perhaps you’ll wonder, as I did, if a student – whatever his or her political affiliation – can’t sit on a podium with the U.S. president and fully attend to 20-minute remarks, then what can capture that student’s uninterrupted attention? They may even have been texting or tweeting about the speech. But that still adds up to split-focus – a diminishing of the attention needed to fully digest his words.

If the real-time, in-the-flesh president is a distraction, then perhaps our addiction to technology is threatening – not just pressuring – our democracy.

Children’s Experience of Place

A plethora of great soon-to-be-published books have just crossed my desk, and I’m determined to read and blog about them soon – from Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Hats off to them for their great work, now and in the past. More later.

But tonight I’m quickly giving a little airtime to a little known academic study from about 40 years ago: Roger Hart’s Children’s Experience of Place.

Hart spent two years in a small New England town, following around children as they built forts in their backyards, fished at the local river, explored, bicycled, roamed and wandered. It seems amazing that his depictions of life not that long ago seem worlds away from the indoors-centric, cyber-dominant, car-oriented lives of our kids today.

Hart has some wonderful observations.

– “Small patches of dirt throughout the town are the most intensively used of all children’s places.”

– “It is notable that the most important qualities to the children of this town – sand/dirt, small shallow ponds or brooks of water, slight elevations of topography, low trees and bushes, and tall unmanicured grass – are systematically removed from all new residential areas, even the highly applauded new towns”

– Children like to find small places, as “places of retreat, to look out upon the world from a place of one’s own, as places for experimenting with how to put things together… In each of these activities a child is probably exploring his or her relationship with the environment, both social and physical.”

“The large amount of time spent by children deeply involved in modelling the environment in micro-scale” — i.e. building forts or houses out of tree branches and found items or tracing towns and cities in the dirt or sand  — “is one demonstration of their desire to give order and meaning to the larger environment which lies beyond their physical grasp.”

Today, I’ve heard it argued that the Net is kids’ backyard. This is a space for a thin kind of social connectivity, and for exploring worlds largely of adults’ imaginations. But the virtual isn’t a space for coming to grips with one’s own place in the physical world, or for exploring the planet earth.

Consider that natural spaces – even a walk in the park – diminish symptoms of ADHD and improve focus in children even without attention deficiencies. Consider that kids in an age of alarming obesity are spending just 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors – a week! Consider that kids today are living under a kind of house arrest, unable to walk to school, play outdoors, explore their own communities.

That’s quite a contrast to the world that Roger Hart found in a small New England town.

Hats off to people like Lenore Skenazy and Richard Louv who are fighting to get kids back outside.