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Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes


Encouraging Conversations

Walking down the first floor corridor on Monday, I observed our kindergarteners cuddled next to their third grade reading buddies. The older buddies were reading to the younger children. I slowed down to listen to the conversation that was taking place between one such pair of children. The younger child made a comment about what she thought might happen next. The older child looked at her and flipped back to the few pages that they had already read, and said “I don’t think that we have gotten any clues from the author that this might happen.” The younger child turned back a page and pointed out something that she saw in the picture. The older child said, “maybe…let’s keep reading and see.”

This scene came into sharp focus as I listened to Dr. Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, addressing a breakfast meeting of local Heads of Independent Schools on Tuesday. She spoke about her research captured in her new book. At one point, she talked about the difference between robots programmed to read to children and the intimacy and spontaneity that occurs when a person reads to a child. The conversation that I observed in the hall was a perfect example of this idea.

Turkle claims that our largely unquestioned embrace of technology has led to an atrophy of the very qualities that define humanity – empathy, reflection, patience, intimacy, imagination and vulnerability. Dr. Turkle is a psychologist who has studied people’s relationships with technology. She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and she makes her claims based on a substantial body of careful research. She is also someone who uses and values technology; however, her work is a call to action to understand the deleterious effects of technology on basic human qualities. She is calling for responsible, limited use of technology. It is provocative and somewhat counter-cultural for a Silicon Valley and an MIT audience.

Dr. Turkle shared so many vivid examples culled from her research that I’m still processing. Here’s a very brief list in no particular order of some of the tidbits that she offered in her talk:

  • When we enter a meeting or sit down to dinner, and place our phones in front of us on the table, we’re essentially signaling everyone around us that our conversation might get interrupted because of an “emergency” call or text. Beyond the fact that if everything is a potential emergency, then nothing is, we are also devaluing the conversation taking place among the people that are sitting beside us.
  • Filling gaps in time by checking emails, twitter feeds, texts and facebook postings on a phone can prevent children from learning patience and from learning how to fill moments of boredom with creativity, observation skills and/or moments of simple contemplation.
  • The appeal of email communication is that one can edit and craft the “perfect” communication on one’s timetable. In this, one loses the social skills derived from the messy, unpredictability of face to face communication.
  • Students who depend upon laptops for note-taking often become transcript writers - capturing every word spoken by the teacher - and failing to learn how to listen and how to distinguish the trivial from the essential.

Turkle called for schools to be places where we hold conversations with parents and teachers about the issues that she has identified in her research. If anyone in our community is interested in forming a group to read Turkle’s work and to discuss its implications for our community, please let me know.

Shabbat shalom,
Dr. G.

See the two most recent New York Times articles about her work:

Posted by dizenson on Tuesday October, 27, 2015 at 09:26PM

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