Patrick Truchon's Web Portal

Different Time Zones, Different Kids

Posted by Patrick on May 29, 2010

In this RSA talk [1], Professor Philip Zimbardo explains how we think differently because of the different “time zones” we live in.  He starts by identifying three “time zones”, each subdivided into two:

  1. Past: good times  vs  bad times
  2. Present: hedonism  vs  why bother planing
  3. Future: plan for later  vs  act for a better afterlife

Interestingly, different cultures tend to lie at different points on this continuum depending on external factors like seasonal variation in weather: people closer to the equator tend to be more present hedonist, while people living in places with greater seasonal changes tend to be more future oriented.  The fact that external factors can affect our “time perspective” has deep implications to education.  Zimbardo mentions that we all began life as present hedonist, and that depending on the culture we live in, one of the purposes of schooling is to make us more future (or past) oriented.  But one of the problems we have in education now is that “analog” education is not interesting to kids anymore because growing up in the digital world “wired” their brains differently.  I personally don’t like that catch phrase. Kids today don’t think differently because their brains are “wired” differently, they think differently because the culture they grew up in is different.

So, since our kids culture is so different than our own, and since these differences affect their time perspective, how should we teach them?  Should we adapt our teaching methods to yield to their needs for greater control and faster feedback, or should we continue to try to help them become better at delaying gratification and planing for the future?  Talking about math education, Dan Meyer [2] explains that one of the problems students have today is they are very impatient with problems that can’t be resolved quickly.  The solution he proposes, however, is not to go “back to basics”, or simply accept that that’s how kids are today, but to use whatever tools he has to help them shift their time perspective.

In the world of EdTech, I see two dangerous extremes: technology is the source of the problems we see today and kids need less of it so it has no place in schools, and kids are digital natives, and we, the digital immigrants, need to embrace what they do and use “their” technologies to teach them.  The truth is that although they are different because of the world they grew up in, kids are kids and they need our guidance.  Whether we should use technology or not to provide this guidance shouldn’t be the primary focus.  Dan’s use of a real life water tank (instead of a fancy digital animation of some kind) is a good example that our goal is not to use technology for its own sake, but to pick the most suited tool for the task.

Links:

  1. RSA Animate, The Secret Powers of Time, <http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/05/24/rsa-animate-secret-powers-time>
  2. Dan Meyer, Math Class Needs a Makeover , <http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html>
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