Category Archives: Big Picture

Cell Phones, a New Form of Birth Control?

In the informative Coursera MOOC on social marketing that I’m presently taking, a number of stats were thrown at us. My favorite: “More people own a mobile device than a toothbrush.”

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I’m not going to accept this kind of statement at face value (see previous blog, Or Would You Rather Be a Fish?). So I had to dig deeper to find out if it’s true.

60 Second Marketer Nicole Hall traced the origins and accuracy of this statistic in 2011. She looked at statistics on subscriptions to cell phone services and deduced the number of mobile phones owned worldwide.

Then Hall unpacked the statistic from Oral-B that yearly global toothbrush sales were about $5 billion. She concluded that, yes, “more people own a mobile phone on the planet than own a toothbrush.”

Jumping on this conclusion, I was all ready to discuss the oral hygiene of mobile phone users without toothbushes—poor oral hygiene leads to rotting teeth, leads to less romantic relationships, leads to less sex and less children. Could mobile phones be a new form of birth control? (Is that so much more far-fetched than many of the dire predictions people are making about the impact of mobile phones?)

But, my friend Lindsay reminded me that not everyone uses a plastic toothbrush to ward off tooth decay. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, she observed Ethiopians using roots or twigs to clean their teeth. Apparently, I was thinking about this in a culturally biased way. Shame on me.

So I had to find out how the rest of the world takes care of their oral health. Not only do Ethiopians and their West African neighbors brush with and chew twigs to clean their teeth and freshen their breath, but according to researchers these twigs are very effective at fighting bacteria.

Protection from gum disease and other ailments is associated with the use of chewing sticks from the Neem tree in India and twigs called Miswaks that have been used by Muslims for centuries. (You can buy Neem toothpaste and Miswaks on Amazon.) In other words, most people in the world are brushing their teeth.

Now that data is part of our everyday lives and shaping our lives online, we need to be very careful about how we interpret it. Comparing unrelated variables is particularly tricky. Despite Hall’s excellent research, the statement should be: More people own a mobile device than a Western style toothbrush. Putting it that way makes it less intriguing and even more trivial.

For those of you who are thinking about how mobile phones are changing our lives and the potential impact of social marketing, here are a couple of examples of more relevant comparison data:

More than 50% of US adults aged 18-44 have cellphones rather than telephone landlines in their homes.

Americans now spend more time accessing digital media on mobile devices than they do on desktop or laptop computers.

Now these stats are worth thinking about next time you brush your teeth.

One New York Times Sunday Review

When I opened the September 13th NY Times Sunday Review recently, I found not only  a print version of Annie Paul’s blog featured in my last post,  Is There a Lecture Learning Gap?,  but three other articles on higher education as well. While Paul suggested we replace the Western cultural lecture that favors privileged white males with activity-based learning benefiting everyone, the others took an unquestioning view of American college culture.

In What the Privileged Poor Can Teach Us?, sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack talks about his research on black students in elite colleges. He compared the success of low-income black students who attended private schools (the privileged poor) with poor blacks who hadn’t. He found that the privileged poor had a great advantage because they were comfortable in the dominant American culture that permeates our elite colleges. For example, while the privileged poor will ask, even demand, extra help when they are confused or behind, non-privileged blacks are too embarrassed or uncomfortable to reach out to instructors so they will continue on a downward spiral.

Nicholas Kristof’s piece, From Somaliland to Harvard, is in sync with Jack’s observations.  Kristof highlights the journey of Abdisamad Adan, a poor African, to Harvard this year. Abdisamad attended a private boarding school run by an American, Jonathan Starr, in Somaliland. Forty-five students from that high school have already graduated from top US colleges. Kristof’s point in the article is that access to schools like Starr’s is the key to success for children like Abdisamad.

This “if you can’t fight them, join them” attitude when it comes to the prevailing culture in American colleges is assumed by Frank Bruni in his article, Measuring a College’s Value. He looked at data from the Gallup-Purdue Index which surveyed 30,000 college graduates. According to Bruni, the research shows that

….graduates fared better if, during college, they did any of these: developed a relationship with a mentor; took on a project that lasted a semester or more; did a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field; or became deeply involved in a campus organization or activity….

Developing a relationship with a mentor? Applying for an internship? Plunging into an extracurricular activity? It sounds like you would have to have the cultural confidence of the privileged poor to take advantage of those opportunities.

Bruni concludes that “what college gives you hinges almost entirely on what you give it.” “What you give it” isn’t neutral. It depends on who you are, the circumstances of your childhood, what culture is familiar to you. So is the student to blame or should we take a look at American college culture?

Before we give more support to elite schools mimicking a biased dominant Western perspective, before we try to make everyone conform to a culture that hasn’t always done the best for everyone, shouldn’t we question what exists and find solutions for change that support and encourage all students including those who bring diversity to the college campus?

Or Would You Rather Be a Fish?*

In a recent Faculty Focus blog, The Power of Mindfulness, Jennifer Lorenzetti points out that the average attention span of humans is estimated at 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000, while that of goldfish is 9 seconds. She follows this with: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone in your class could manage to be mentally present for the entire class?” Should she also have asked “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in your class were a goldfish?”

More questions: How do you measure the attention span of a goldfish? What does that have to do with human attention span? What do goldfish use their attention spans for? How can I have any self-esteem if I have a shorter attention span than a fish?

Perhaps the fact that I got stuck on the goldfish intro and didn’t go on to grasp the rest of the article proves that I have a short attention span. Nevertheless, rather than write about mindfulness, I decided to browse for information on the attention span of goldfish.

Almost immediately I discovered that I am not the first to do this. Among those who have, Ray Adams is very skeptical about Google searches and attention span research. He could not confirm the actual attention span of goldfish (or people for that matter). Back to goldfish. Ken McCall did an even more thorough search. He traced the statistic back to the Statistic Brain, but they don’t explain its source either. They define attention span as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”

A 2014 Ministry of Truth blog also can’t find a source for attention span in goldfish, likening it to another widely touted goldfish characteristic–that goldfish have a 3-second memory span (how long something is remembered). However, that assertion was debunked by scientists in two studies showing that goldfish memories could last for months.

Lorenzetti may have gotten her information from a recent publicized article by Microsoft Canada, Attention Spans, reporting research on human attention span in the digital age. They used the goldfish 9-second statistic.

The researchers found that Canadian attention spans are decreasing, but people are able “to do more with less,” making decisions based on little information. The Microsoft study’s goal was to advise advertisers on digital messaging. Their advice was to be concise, novel, and interactive where appropriate.

The Microsoft researchers didn’t study goldfish or give advice on how to get their attention. Should we just be amazed that we function as well as we do with such short attention spans?

Research will continue on human attention span in the digital age because it affects how we learn and communicate. But is attention span the same no matter what we are involved in? While my attention span for Lorenzetti’s article was short, it was quite substantial for researching goldfish and writing this blog.

So, I’m not convinced that we are losing out to goldfish. Now, if we could measure goldfish attention span while they’re surfing the Internet or playing Grand Theft Auto….

*From Swinging on a Star by Johnny Burke and James Van Heusen

I Say Sitzfleisch, You Say Grit

With all due respect to my education professors in graduate school, most of what I know about learning and teaching came from my mother who never went to college. She told me that the key to success is sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a word that comes from the German, literally, sitting on your ass.

In English, sitzfleisch is the ability to focus on a task whether or not it is engaging for the amount of time needed to master or complete it which is not necessarily the amount of time you want to spend on it. Yes, all of that. According to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, 

Sitzfleisch is sort of the opposite of Ants In Your Pants. The amount of sitzfleisch you’ve got will directly influence how much work you can produce. How long can you stand it, to sit there and push through? Inspiration is beautiful, imagination divine, and we all love soaring dreams. But sitzfleisch? Ass meat? THAT’S how you write your novel. That’s how you compose your symphony. That’s how you paint your masterpiece.

Nowadays, a great deal of research is being done on sitzfleisch only it’s called grit and self-control. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, leads the research in this area. This is how she defines these terms:

Self-control entails aligning actions with any valued goal despite momentarily more-alluring alternatives; grit, in contrast, entails having and working assiduously toward a single challenging superordinate goal through thick and thin, on a timescale of years or even decades.

Duckworth’s work is ongoing. She is proving in study after study that self-control or grit or a combination of both, is more highly correlated to success in school and life than IQ and talent. So, of course, now everyone wants grit and self-control especially for their children. How do we teach them grit?

Duckworth admits she doesn’t know–yet. She says that Carol Dweck’s growth mindset (see previous blog post, Failing is for Everyone) may be one of the ways to get there. In growth mindset, when the process of learning is explained to children, when they are told that success means hard work and pushing through failure, they stay the course.

Being aware of the learning process helps prepare us for its challenges. People who are gritty not only know that they can “push through,” they have strategies to shore up their staying power. Next time you have “ants in your pants” try one of these actions:

  • Look at how much you have accomplished and how much further you have to go. Then, make realistic goals for yourself.
  • Give yourself a moment to think about what pushing through now will get you in the immediate future (time for dinner with your significant other? freedom to kick back and relax?) or in the long run (a condo in the city? worldwide recognition?)
  • Call a friend to complain to for a few minutes. Make sure it’s a friend who empathizes with you and values your succeeding. (Not the friend who says, “I hear ya, screw it, come party with us!”)

The more you practice grit and self-control, the easier it will get, and the more successful you will be.


Is Multitasking the End?

There’s an epidemic that’s hard to miss: People texting, watching videos, working, checking their messages, listening to music, walking, driving, talking on cell phones all in the same timeframe. They’re multitasking, doing different things simultaneously or moving back and forth between activities that overlap or interrupt each other.

The most dangerous technology multitasking is driving and talking or texting on your cell phone. Cell phone activity slows reaction times more than alcohol. Then multitasking while walking. Forty per cent of over a thousand teens surveyed by Safekids reported they were hit or almost hit by a moving vehicle while walking and listening to music, talking or texting on their phones.

Still, the epidemic continues to spread. We can try to contain it, but it may be more useful to find ways to save us from ourselves. People are working on solutions such as inventing cars that can stop on their own or drive themselves so distractions such as texting won’t cause accidents.

For walking and texting or “wexting,” one city is wrapping soft materials around light poles to cause less harm when people walk into them. Another has a pop-up ad interrupt texting when you approach intersections to get you to pay attention. To raise awareness and change behavior Utah Valley University designed a staircase with lanes marked walk, run, and text.

Still, the outlook is grim. Articles appear daily with headlines such as “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain”   “The High Cost of Multitasking”  “Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, Studies Show” These articles highlight research showing that technology multitasking can make you less productive, lower your IQ, and damage your brain.

These are all important issues, but how do we continue to adapt to the future with this kind of ominous news?

Looking for good news I found two small studies. showing that the effects of technology multitasking aren’t all bad. One study of children who were instant messaging (IMing) while reading a passage found that although they took longer to read the passage, they tested as well as those who just focused on reading. In another study, Dr. Zheng Wang found that college students who used media while studying were happier than those who did not, despite not completing their school work.

Then I thought I found real optimism in the New Yorker article “Multitask Masters.” When psychologist David Strayer found the more you multitask, the worse your performance, he also found one person who was a highly effective multitasker.  Instead of treating her as a statistical irrelevancy, he decided to learn from her and other “supertaskers.” But, it turns out supertaskers only comprise about 2% of the population and genetics basically determines their ability—their brains are wired differently.

How do we keep hope alive? I have to think that in the thousands of years of human life, our brains have adapted even though we have no MRIs or psychology studies to prove it. Take the telephone, invented in the 1870’s, for example. The sound of a phone ring is so familiar to us now that coma patients will answer phones, speak into them, and then return to their comas! That’s gotta count for something.

Let’s continue to do the studies, analyze the problems, and work on solutions. And, let’s hope that we don’t become idiots or accidentally kill each other before experience with technology turns humanity into better multitaskers.