But Miss, they’re not listening to me

Regular readers of this blog are likely to be aware of my stance on the expert-versus-amateur debate. Suffice it to say that I believe in formally acquired expertise and in wisdom-of-crowds, that I am prepared to learn from so-called experts and from amateurs alike, that I do not insist on looking at the future through the eyes of history alone. My children teach me things. I learn from the behaviour of “fresh” graduates. In fact I learn quite a bit from observing what babies do. All this does not stop me from learning in other, more traditional, ways.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have watched the traditional command-and-control structures come under increasing pressure, and a newer, more democratised structure emerge. This has happened at home, in educational establishments and at work, and has been covered extensively by many who are more qualified than me to comment.

More recently, I have begun to understand something else about this switch from hierarchical to networked, particularly in the context of expertise. Experts need power. Experts knew how to acquire power in the hierarchical world, in terms of the trappings needed. Trappings at home, in academia and at work. Trappings in the form of titles, letters before and after your name, size of room, number of windows. Trappings worn as necklaces and garlands and ties and medals. Trappings.

Some experts have found this loss of power disconcerting, and it can be amusing to watch the consequences as a result. A classic example is that of the “expert” speaker and his audience. The expert expects the audience to respect him and what he says, to listen diligently, perhaps even to take notes. To ask questions at the end, when invited to do so.

We don’t have audiences like that any more. Maybe they still exist, but not at the kind of conferences I attend.

An aside. One way to understand the difference between the audience of yesterday and the audience of tomorrow is by looking at how Blackberries and Macs get used in the enterprise, at meetings and conferences. Yesterday’s generation look surreptitiously at their BlackBerries, pretending to pay attention to what is being said. For some strange reason, they think that no one will notice. Tomorrow’s generation, on the other hand, put their Macs on the table and use them to take notes, to look up references, to stay connected. And they pay attention to what is being said. While everyone else thinks they aren’t listening. So one generation pretends to listen, actually does something else, and goes around in the benighted belief that no one will notice. And the other generation pretends not to listen, knows how to multitask, and does all this in the open. Hmmmm.

Which brings me to the point of this post. It must have been over four years ago I first came across Joi Ito’s Hecklebot, and I just loved it. I have this real conviction that the evolution of the Hecklebot has real value in education, and intend to do something about it.

So I found this anecdote in New Scientist quite amusing.

It’s a new world out there. We can’t go around saying “But Miss, they’re not listening to me”. We have to earn the respect of our peers. But remember, in a networked society, everyone is a peer.  Your professors. Your children. Your subordinates. Your bosses.

Everyone’s a peer.

Live with it.

18 thoughts on “But Miss, they’re not listening to me”

  1. Like any other psycho-social phenomenon, attention is a subtle thing. The efforts of experimental psychology to understand it have been at such a low level that it is hard to project them into the real world of social settings. Thus, we should all be very careful to take your projection about tomorrow’s generation at face value. The flip side is the argument that, as one tries to juggle more and more through multitasking, one pays less and less attention to each of the component elements. Multitasking works best when comparatively LITTLE attention is involved for ANY of the tasks (as in looking for “suspicious activity” in a wall of security video monitors, where most of the images show no activity at all). That is decidedly NOT the kind of multitasking you attribute to tomorrow’s generation, so I feel I have good reason to be skeptical about your conclusions!

  2. Not sure I follow your logic, Stephen. “it is hard to project them into the real world”… “thus we should all be very careful to take your projection…”

    I don’t claim to be right. My observations are based on what I see and how I interpret it, conditioned by my past and my present. I’m relaxed about being wrong. But I can’t follow the logic of what you say here.

    Incidentally, I’m not sure about your assertion on multitasking. You say it “works best when comparatively little attention is involved for any of the tasks”. I don’t know what research underpins that statement. What I see is something different. Emerging generations practise continuous partial attention differently from prior generations; they have one task as foreground, and a number of other tasks as background; they are able to reallocate their attention dynamically if the need arises. Even young children watching television while playing and eating exhibit this. Just try switching the television off.

    They live in a more visual and graphic age, with tools and techniques we never had. So they behave differently.

  3. When it comes to sitting in a lecture, a lot of the time comparatively little attention *is* needed! Following what someone is saying is easy; noting important points not much harder. Plenty of time and attention left over for relevant googling etc. The fact all the tasks overlap means it’s not so much multitasking as complementary tasking, or even just more thorough and active tasking, period.

    In parenting manuals, there is a skill called “active listening”, where you constantly interact with the speaker to stay connected.

    Anyway, “multitasking”- possibly not a scientifically defined term yet either.

  4. Really interesting observation on surreptitious BB use vs. the open laptop. Young people certainly operate by a different set of norms vis a vis being connected, accessing information that might be useful to an ongoing discussion whether they’re sitting in a conference hall or a department meeting, asking questions of their network and getting answers on the spot. (Why do those of us over 40 feel like we have to hide the fact that we’re connected?) I’ve yet to come across any substantive research on multi-tasking; if anyone knows of such research, please pass it along. What I wonder is: do the individual tasks get a lower-quality attention than if you filter everything else out? or as JP suggests, can some individuals and perhaps even a whole new generation keep a primary task in the foreground, others in the background and switch dynamically as the need arises with little or no attention leakage? Does Microsoft’s research on the productivity benefits of using two computer screens (http://research.microsoft.com/displayArticle.aspx?id=433) offer any insight? I’ve been doing this for a few months now, and what it seems to do for me is to bring the background task close enough to the foreground that there is less attention loss when I switch. It’s easier to pick up where I left off when I return to what I was doing. JP – great topic – I love your blog. If I come across anything else interesting on the topic I’ll send it along and hope you and your other readers will too.

  5. JP, I apologize for the delay; yesterday was Opera day! I also apologize that you caught me on a typo. Rather than “efforts,” I mean to say “RESULTS of efforts.” The problem is that experimental psychology is still at such a micro-level that it is hard to interpret the published results in real-world settings!

    In this respect Alice provided some useful data points about the real world of the classroom during my “radio silence.” “Active listening” has also been embraced by many independent schools on this side of the pond. (The main problem in the public school system is that the teacher-student ratio is too small for all those students to be active listeners!) My wife has been teaching according to active listening for many years; and she understands how productive complementary tasking can be (and, as a corollary, how COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE other forms of multitasking can be). As I said in my first comment, we are dealing with some very subtle phenomena; and I take Alice’s conclusion to mean that they are too subtle to be lumped under a single word that, unfortunately, is more jargon than anything else.

    On the other hand, I am not quite sure what you meant to say when what you DID say was “I don’t claim to be right.” I am one of those old-fashioned guys who believes that, when someone makes an assertion in a declarative sentence, unless that assertion is explicitly marked as hypothetical, I assume that the “someone” making it believes it. I am less concerned with what is right than with what you believe, since what you believe is what influences the decisions you make and the actions you take. If I advise caution over the beliefs that you, or anyone else, form, it is only because I think that caution is in order. If the rhetoric behind my logic confused you, go with what Alice wrote, because I think she captured the nature of the situation better than I did.

  6. Stephen,

    don’t you think the hecklebot would be a great active listening device, and using it a type of complementary or multi-tasking (depending what you call it) that would indeed change people’s behaviour in the direction JP identifies- towards everyone being peers in the sense of conversing equally actively?

  7. Alice, pessimist that I am, I see the HeckleBot as a source of noise, rather than signal. This would result if it were used for its own sake, rather than for active listening. It reminds me of some of the experiments that Roger Schank ran using simulations to teach physics. One involved two trains on a collision course. The student had to figure out how to slow down the train before getting to a switch point without derailing it. The problem was that the sound of the collision was REALLY cool, and lots of kids preferred hearing it to solving the problem! I can see all sorts of “really cool” things you could do with a HeckleBot that even JP would have to agree had no “real value in education!”

    This is another illustration of my favorite motto: Think about the consequences before you pull the switch!

  8. Stephen, I think you are seriously underestimating the sheer power of the hecklebot, and of back-channels in general, in the context of education.

    They are no longer experimental, they have already become an integral part of many of the conferences/workshops/seminars I attend. And I see immense value in their being used in secondary and higher education.

    If you visit urban secondary school classrooms, quite often there is a complete breakdown in the traditional authority structures. Peer recognition and respect is all that rules. As society we have three choices: One, to push back and seek to reimpose historical authority. Two, to do the normal apathetic thing and not care. Three, to try and motivate the youth.

    You know I’m an optimist. So I want to try option 3. I think hecklebots and back-channels are wonderful opportunities for us to do this. I guess your students don’t tend to have a motivation problem; maybe they also have a higher respect for authority than is the case in urban secondary school classrooms.

    I do think of the consequences. But my perception of the consequences is different from yours. If we don’t embrace techniques such as back-channels, my fear is that we will continue to foster an underclass, continue to disenfranchise students unnecessarily.

    Back-channels are cool, but they are not about being cool. The technology per se is not new, it is older than the mobile phone. In the conferences I go to, much of what I see (in back-channel usage) is constructive and valuable to the community. And peer pressure ensures that misuse stays at a minimum.

  9. JP, first let’s sort out the apples (back-channel technology) and oranges (education).

    I have had a fair amount of experience (mostly positive) with back-channel technology. More important, however, is that, through my past connection with the Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science (HICSS), I have had even MORE experience with evaluating the technology in a prodigious number of settings. Much of this work was launched by Jay Nunamaker; but many of the really good papers on evaluation come from the efforts of his colleague, Robert Briggs. These guys have done excellent work, first sorting out when things work from when they do not work and then trying to get to the heart of WHY they did or did not work. I do not dispute the value of your own personal experiences, but the objective literature is definitely worth reading.

    On the education side I have PARC to thank for giving me some really good exposure to the most embattled trenches. PARC has formed an excellent relationship with the Association of California School Superintendents and Administrators, and those guys are all-too-willing to let us know about the realities of urban setting at all levels. Again, there is both good news and bad when it comes to bringing technology into those settings. Much of this is now documented in the literature of the professional societies for educators; but my own familiarity comes more from word-of-mouth. The most important thing I have learned is that embracing a technology is never a solution in itself. The problems about the ineffectiveness of so many of today’s classroom experiences need to be addressed within a scope that goes way beyond where your optimistic thoughts currently lead you. The good news is that, at least in California, for all of the burdens of budgetary and regulatory constraints, they ARE being addressed; and they are being addressed by people whose awareness of technology is impressively perceptive.

  10. Stephen, I’m no expert. But my sense is that back-channel technology has come a long way in terms of ease of use and convenience over the last few years. Trials prior to that, however prodigious they may have been, may have been marred, at least in part, by the clunkiness of the technology.

    You only have to look at mp3 players and the iPod effect to see what I mean.

  11. I’ve been away from my aggregator for a few days so I am late coming to this conversation, but I think you have truly hit a nail on the head with these thoughts. As an educator, trying to help students become independent, globally connected and contextualized learners, we have had to vastly change our pedagogies and truly consider what the meaning of the all of the activity in classrooms is. It cannot be about cramming reams of soon to be outdated information into developing minds. Instead, it must be about conversation, context, and connections. We are thinking more about ideas of flow and of studio in learning environments. These spaces function best when the relationships have been flattened and the needs of individuals are taken into account. As a teacher, I understand I am still the “master learner” in my place and that I am accountable for what happens there, but changing the goals of the space opens us up to new possibilities and relieves some of the failure of the imagination that education has suffered for so long.

  12. Hey Clarence, good to see you back. Your efforts to remain open to new (and better) possibilities remain an inspiration to me.

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