Is this why some kids stink at communicating?


Before today’s morning bell, I ask one of my students about college acceptance news.

“Nothing new,” she says, as her eyes gaze into an iPhone. “I’m still on the waiting list.”

I have had this person in three courses: American history, United States government and journalism. Outside of class, I have spent countless hours teaching her essential writing and analytical skills. I also wrote a highly supportive college letter of recommendation on her behalf, and I helped her with college essays.

I’m hurt that she looks at her phone while we converse, failing to afford me the most basic sign of human politeness. I admit to her as much, but I’m just as offended by her response:

“Aw, don’t worry, Mr. Cutler,” she says. “You have my full attention. I’m just multitasking.”

It takes me a few minutes to digest the encounter.

This student has always displayed the utmost politeness toward me, even giving me small gifts as tokens of her appreciation (which, for reasons I will reserve for for a later post, I always feel uneasy accepting). I know that she speaks highly of me to peers and teachers alike. After a while, I come to the conclusion that she means no disrespect; rather, she has been raised to believe that this is acceptable behavior.

It’s not her fault—not really. It’s ours.

In the summer 2011 edition of Independent School, a marvelous magazine geared toward, well… independent school educators, ethics and comparative politics teacher Karen Bradley writes a fascinating article, “Can Teens Really Do It All: Techno-Multitasking Learning, & Performance.”

I’m both comforted and freighted by Bradely’s opening anecdote:

[Daniel] was a student in my AP U.S. History class recently. We were talking about study habits, distractions, and time spent doing homework one day, and Daniel excitedly said, “I have to listen to rock and roll on my iPod while I’m studying! It’s the only way I can focus!” Nothing could convince Daniel that the music he listened to as “background” was interfering with his learning. Yet, his understanding of the material lacked depth, and his grades showed it.

To perform well in school, Daniel feels that he must have his iPod. To afford others her due attention, my student feels that she must have her iPhone, at least under certain circumstances. Daniel couldn’t see how listening to music could interfere with his learning. My student couldn’t see how using her iPhone in a face-to-face chat could constitute inappropriate behavior.

Bradley explains that people fool themselves into believing that multitasking is possible. It’s not, and even attempting to do so can be unhealthy and unproductive.

“Rather, [the brain] switches gears, which takes time, reduces accuracy, and inhibits thought. In many cases, it is simply less efficient than working on tasks sequentially,” she writes.

For a short while, I consider speaking more harshly to my student. But then I remember my discussion with Dr. Larry Rosen, author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us.

“I go speak to parents all the time, and teachers all the time, and one of my suggestions is that you need to allocate more time for learning communication skills, because we’re not very good at it, and our kids are probably going to turn out to be [expletive] at it in the long run,” he says.

I’m not sure it’s my place to tell my eighteen-year-old student how to act, or in this case how to put away her phone when speaking with someone. If parents accept and demonstrate certain behavior, especially when it causes no real harm to others, what authority do I have to question or override such accepted family norms—however strongly I might disagree?

Moreover, I’m not a parent and other than in this one instance, this person excels in all other facets of life. I’m confused, and once again I have more questions than answers.

I turn to Dr. Rosen for some insight into parental responsibility:

I think that it’s too easy to give up your parenting practices for other people. This is one where I think you’ve really got to step up and go, “Yeah, it’s my job as a parent to train my kids to know how to communicate.” That means you’ve got to take time. That means you can’t just sit them in front of the TV or in front of an iPad, or phone or whatever. You’ve got to actually have communication during dinnertime, and you’ve got to have family meetings where you talk, and you have to play games with your kids, and engage them, and co-view television with them, if that’s what it takes. But sadly, that’s not happening.

A few weeks ago I spoke with Kristen Blair, an education writer and co-author of From Santa to Sexting. She provides adults with effective tools for parenting in a technology-saturated world.

Kids needs to possess technological competencies, but I think that there’s so much confusion about what that is, what does that mean, what does that look like. I think there’s a lot of fear in how do I equip my child to compete in a global economy. Those fears are valid given the economic climate, but there’s also just this pressure and lack of awareness…When we talk to parents, I make the point that yes, your kids need technological competencies, but that’s not spending four hours a day on Facebook.

I know at least one thing for certain: with ineffective parenting, teachers can only do so much to help students succeed.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply April 8, 2013


    Nothing could convince Daniel that the music he listened to as “background” was interfering with his learning. Yet, his understanding of the material lacked depth, and his grades showed it.

    Doesn’t this presume that grades provide an accurate portrayal of a “depth of learning?” Do they?

    Perhaps Daniel simply wasn’t interested in AP American History. Maybe listening to music helped him deal with a task (studying AP American History) which he truly disliked? Maybe Daniel’s study habits aren’t the problem. Then again, maybe they are. I’m just throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.

  • Reply May 8, 2013

    G Floyd

    Teaching at the college level as an adjunct has given me the ability to see the before and after of deteriorating communication skills, first in my students and then in those who have transitioned into the workplace. They can’t quite figure out rudimentary face-to-face conversation, or, perhaps it’s that they don’t know the protocols of basic courtesy in an exchange — either is problematic in the business disciplines that require a relationship with coworkers, subordinates, or importantly, customers or prospects. A perfect example: I am infuriated by those within my own company who think that no answer to a communication is an appropriate response, assuming it to be interpreted as the negative. The fact is that no answer is not an answer, it’s just bad manners. The inability to communicate properly is irritating to coworkers inside the organization and off-putting to those outside the organization who are typically essential to its success.

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