Education Opinion

Fuel for the Fire

By Emmet Rosenfeld — February 02, 2008 4 min read
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I’m back from my trip to the netherworld (article has gone to bed) and ready to pick up where I left off, which was with a promise to discuss the media consumption habits of ninth graders who are reading Fahrenheit 451. I told you I wanted to look at the book not just as a parable about censorship but also, as Bradbury himself suggests, as a cautionary tale against couch potatoism.

So, I asked the students to record their media consumption for one week, and we collated the data in class. The results were interesting, if not scientifically valid. I’ll tell you what we found out, and also kick around some ideas about collecting and using data in the classroom.

First, the very raw data. Each kid had a table on which she or he was to record information in columns: the date and amount of time spent, the form of media (like internet or ipod), the content (ESPN Sportszone, Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the “purpose or activity” (fantasy football research, working out). Some kids were meticulous about this and others had about 3 rows scrawled out on the bus.

In class, I asked them to go down the list, and for every activity, rate it from 1 to 3 based on its degree of interactivity. A 1 was for something you did with another person or that was very interactive, like playing a head-to-head video game or chatting online. A 2 was for something that you did in the presence of others but was essentially solitary, like listening to an ipod in the backseat of the minivan on the way to soccer practice. A 3 was the rating for lonely stuff that you did alone. Like reading a book under a tree far away from the madding crowd.

Next, I asked groups of 5-7 kids to put their data together in a chart that showed the amount, form, and degree of interaction. I didn’t specify exactly how to make the charts, as I figured these math-science whizzes would be able to figure that out far better than I. There was a wide variation in presentation, but most groups settled on a pie graph to show the forms, and a bar graph to show the degree of interaction.

One problem was that I did not specify in advance of the data collection what the “forms” should be. If I did this again, I would give them categories here, making a distinction between print (books, magazines, newspapers), computer-based (games, social networking, web-surfing), and non-computer (ipod, TV, console video games). As it was, the way that each group chose to conglomerate the individual data was not consistent.

Spitballing it, online activities were the most popular accounting for an estimated 40-45% of media use, then music at maybe 30%, and the reading of books under 5%. (And this was during a week when I’d assigned them 120 pages of reading).

As far as the average degree of interaction, about a quarter of the activities were rated a 1 (very interactive), a third got a 2 (“alone together”), and the rest were labeled 3 (no interaction with others). For those as math-challenged as I am, that means that 42% of the time a kid consumed media he was also shutting out the world. Earphones on, nobody home.

So, how much did they actually turn on and tune out? In the first period, there was an average consumption per kid per week of just under 52 hours. Second period had a much lower average, for some reason, at 21 hours per kid per week. And third period came in at around 14 hours. Did I explain it differently as the day wore on? The average over three classes was 32 hours of media consumption per kid per week. That’s 4.5 hours shoehorned into every already jam-packed day of a bunch of over-programmed superachievers.

Okay, so let’s assume a standard deviation of… wait a second, who am I trying to kid. What I do know is that, based on my own informal survey of a typical Saturday as reported in the post before last, these kids are probably wildly underreporting their media use.

Scientific or not, the exercise was engaging. It was sort of a minds-on way for science-oriented kids to grapple with the ideas in the book. I helped them along this path with some good old writing to learn. Before assigning the media journal but after they’ve read the first third of the book, I asked them to write in class about Bradbury’s vision of the future with attention to the portrayal of the role of media. After compiling the data, we did another writing in class: Was Bradbury right or wrong?

In other words, did the data we collected support or refute his dystopic vision of a dumbed down nation sedated by wall screens while a ubiquitous war rages around them? (Like that could ever happen.) The before and after writing showed a range of opinions. Michelle’s was typical: “I believe that Bradbury was somewhat right. He exaggerated to make the point that media would become a large part of our life. He said that media would be extremely censored but now media is not censored. Rap music, different shows with racy topics… He made it seem that media use was boring and required no thought but activities we do using media many times require thought and effort, like talking to friends on line. In the book, whenever Mildred talked to her friends it was about TV shows and things like that. When we talk to friends it is mainly about music and TV shows. It barely ever goes to the topic of books… Books still require more imagination than TV shows because you have to imagine the scenes in the book but scenes are given to you, you don’t have to put effort into [TV].”

Rocket science? Maybe not. But to me, Michelle and the rest of the kids are grappling in a genuine way with the ideas presented in the book, holding them up against their world and their own experience to see if they still ring true. As long as Bradbury’s book-- or any book-- can still kindle that kind of curiosity, we can hold the mechanical hounds at bay.

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