Monday, March 19, 2012

Infofatigue and impatience

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Tony Shin's infographic (at right) and research from Jean Twenge came together in class last Friday.

My students and I were discussing Martha Irvine's 3/15/12 article  (based on Twenge's research) which claims that today's teens are less environmentally conscious and less civic-minded than previous generations. At first I was surprised when my students readily agreed with the article's premise because I consider them to be pretty enlightened in those two areas. But they were quick to agree with Irvine. "We're not as green as our parents," one student said without batting an eye. She then said she'd read somewhere that recycling plastic water bottles is more costly than producing new ones and saw recycling as "a waste" (a waste of effort, by the way, not of resources); after some competing claims were tossed about, the subject shifted. On the topic of civic-mindedness a student brought up the Kony 2012 video citing stories that said that Invisible Children give less than 30% of the money they raise to African sources; another student said that was false, based on what she'd read on the nonprofit group's financial statements on their website.  But pretty soon it went the course that too many contested discussions go – to a stalemate. As their teacher, this gave me pause. We had two fascinating discussions, but without a resolution to either. It reminds me of what Shin has found – we don't want to wait for the answer, and so we move on, without a resolution ... and, I suspect, with a gnawing dissatisfaction.

It's easy to become inundated with facts to the point of information fatigue. As Irvine wrote:
... are they just overwhelmed?   Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has noticed an increase in skepticism - or confusion - about climate change among his students as the national debate has heightened. That leads to fatigue, he said.  "It's not so much that they don't think it's important. They're just worn out," Potosnak said. "It's like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it."

I can't help but think about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and follow-up studies which indicated that children in the original study who exhibited delayed gratification were later described by their parents as being more competent adolescents and found to be more academically successful. It left me wondering if I should be even more explicit with my students on how to take a more measured, deliberate approach to a medium teeming with actionable content and instant gratification ... and if so, how?

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