Several years ago I read Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (2015) and found myself dismayed by her descriptions of the state of our youth, yet hopeful about what I saw as opportunities for school librarians to bring about positive change.
I’ve been hearing for years through conferences, publications, and social media that educators should strive to “meet students (aka ‘digital natives’) where they’re at” by engaging with them through their Internet-enabled devices. Knowing that technology is simply a tool that is not necessarily the best choice for achieving a particular outcome, I always questioned that advice. The use of technology has both positive and negative effects, and the negative effects can be severe. According to Turkle, we now have a generation of students that have “lost practice in the empathic arts–learning to make eye contact, to listen, and to attend to others” (2015, 7) as a result of spending too much time attached to their devices. She also highlights how it’s more difficult for students to pay attention to a teacher or an activity when tempted by multiple distractions on their devices. Their ability to sustain deep attention or deep reading is being lost.
The shift to virtual modes of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns has only served to exacerbate what Turkle observed in the early 2010s. During the shutdowns, students were isolated at home with few opportunities to interact in person with others outside of their families. In many areas of the country, they were required to interact with their devices for each full school day in their homes. Sadly, we are now hearing how cases of mental illness in our youth have dramatically increased over this period.
Educators have a unique opportunity to counter these negative effects through Turkle’s proposed remedy: “the talking cure.” The talking cure is simple: engage students in in-person conversation. She states, “In a classroom, conversations carry more than the details of a subject; teachers are there to help students learn how to answer questions and be dissatisfied with easy answers. More than this, conversations with a good teacher communicate that learning isn’t all about the answers. It’s about what the answers mean. Conversations help students build narratives–whether about gun control or the Civil War–that will allow them to learn and remember in a way that has meaning for them” (2015, 8). This is literacy at its core: making meaning. As teachers of multiple literacies, school librarians have myriad opportunities to help students make meaning via rich conversation about their self-selected topics of inquiry. The talking cure is also a powerful avenue for supporting social-emotional learning in the library. I think of readers’ advisory as the perfect avenue to engage students in conversation by connecting them with a book about the real or imagined experiences of others in similar situations.
Technology tools can be helpful, but they are not always beneficial. The school library should be a place in which students learn how to balance using technology to achieve a learning goal and putting it aside to focus upon reflection, rich conversation, and deep thinking. Perhaps it’s time for the school library to return to providing a dedicated quiet space to counter the negative effects of too much technology. A quiet space designated to disconnecting from the Internet and engaging in device-free, face-to-face conversation or deep reading of a print book. A quiet space in which students can practice “unitasking” or learn how to be okay with boredom since “…the experience of boredom is directly linked to creativity and innovation” (39) and “a moment of boredom can be an opportunity to go inward to your imagination, an opportunity for new thinking” (218). This school library “quiet space cure” could prove to be a lifeline for all members of the school community.
Turkle, Sherry. 2015. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books.