Commentary

Dexter Mahaffey: The age of infinite interruptibility

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dexter Mahaffey, of Charlotte, who is head of school at Vermont Commons School in South Burlington.

In his essay “A Good Scythe,” Wendell Berry writes about his preference for using the old-world tool over the now ubiquitous weed-eater. While Berry objects to the combustion engine tool’s effect on our environment, his focus here is on pace. A scythe, he argues, limits one’s work naturally: There’s only so long you can keep at it, swinging the broad, heavy blade, before you eventually tire and must take a break. The human body has natural limits. When we pretend this isn’t so, we often trade quality for quantity in the name of productivity, often trading depth for breadth.

I return to Berry’s essay these days because the faculty at Vermont Commons School read Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” this summer. Alter delves deeply into recent revelations in the neuroscience of addiction and reveals how our technology — devices, platforms, programs and apps — are intentionally and successfully built to tap our capacity for addiction, particularly in those young members of our society whose capacity for coordinated judgment and restraint are still works in progress. Sadly, we adults fare little better. While the various systems in our post-adolescent brains are merged and coordinating well, we are still vulnerable to addiction; and technology, as it turns out, provides our brain chemistry precisely the same rush as substances do and creates an ongoing hunger for more in exactly the same way. In the era of the smartphone with every email pushed to us through a buzz, ping or light, many of us have let our technology train us to be both immediately available and immediately responsive, regardless of the message’s urgency or lack thereof. Alter relates that the average American workplace email goes unread for six seconds. While some of us might wait to respond to that email until later, most stop whatever we were doing to open and read our new message.

What this means for productivity and focus in the workplace is staggering. We are infinitely interruptible, regardless of how important our current task is or how committed we had just been to doing it. In that environment, there’s apparently no work that can’t or shouldn’t be halted. What does it mean for our work, our studies, our learning and teaching, if we allow our focus to be broken throughout the day, all day, every day? When do we fit focused work in? Teachers still need long stretches of time to imagine and create excellent plans for their classes or give detailed, careful feedback on student work. Students still need long periods of quiet, undistracted focus if they are to muscle through a complex equation, substantiate a valid and compelling argument, or compose a work of musical beauty.

This brings me back to the scythe and the weed-eater. The scythe allows your human energy and exhaustion to guide the pacing of your day. Our smartphones, email, online games and Instagram, like the weed-eater, never need sleep but, unlike the weed-eater, will wake us up and keep us up. And as we now know, the light emanating from their screens actually simulates daylight, waking us as well as disturbing our sleep patterns if viewed before bed. The time we give to technology often comes at the expense of time for direct human interaction and, equally alarming, from sleep. So, when do we fit in all that work we meant to get to earlier in the day? While we should be sleeping of course.

I’m not a Luddite. I’m writing this on a laptop with word-processing software. I have a cellphone and would be loath to give up the safety it provides in emergencies. And I have watched my sleep decline and cheapen, my mood change during dinner with my family by the arrival of an email, and the actual conversations and interactions with the people in my life be disjointed and distracted by the devices in our hands.

Since the late ‘90s, the question posed by numbers of school administrators has been and continues to be: How are you going to use technology in your classroom? But correlative data showing increased classroom technology use causing increased student learning and success does not exist. Finland continues to plow wildly ahead of the U.S. in all student learning and achievement measures, and their education system considers more than 45 minutes a week of technology use in school to be excessive!

One of the questions we’re asking right now at Vermont Commons centers on what part of technology we really need and what we can let go. In early August, I took my email off my cellphone. I encouraged the faculty and staff to consider the same, and I set a new institutional standard for how quickly we will respond to emails. For non-urgent emails two-to-three days is a reasonable response time; the hope is to build a culture where no one replies to — nor expects a reply — unless at least a day has passed since an email was received. If something is urgent we need to pick up the phone or find one another and communicate face to face.

Recently a group of Middlebury College professors were discussing the notion of slow learning, which (like the Slow Food movement or Berry’s scythe) contemplates what it means to work at a human pace, one governed by a goal of enduring quality, deep consideration and long-lasting change. Students will only have the chance to solve the world’s problems when we have provided them the technology-free time and space to connect deeply with people and places in need, to work rigorously through potential solutions, and then to roll up their sleeves, pick up the scythe, and get down to swinging it.

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