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From the Editor
“Cell phones and social media.”
That was the succinct answer I got from a Sistema teacher I spoke with recently, when I asked her why she said her job is getting harder, not easier. She added, “And this year, it’s really ramped up; the problem is worse than it’s ever been.”
We’ve heard similar comments from other Sistema teachers – and not about kids trying to sneak screen time during orchestra rehearsals. The real problem is the way kids’ minds – their brains, to be exact – are being shaped by their extensive screen time experience outside of school and music program. It’s no secret that social media is designed to fragment attention and engineered to be addictive. As a New York Times Op Ed article put it, when you “use social media in the way it’s designed to be used…it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, because your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix.”
Learning to play the William Tell Overture tunefully, ardently and together requires a lot of unbroken concentration. As does learning to play a fluent B-flat scale on a clarinet, or counting the beats of the rests in a percussion part, or working with peers to create a collective composition. But during their non-student hours, more and more of our kids are systematically un-learning the skill of unbroken concentration.
And it’s not just our kids. As my friend who teaches middle school English told me, “Cell phones and social media are the worst things that ever happened to teaching and learning.” She says she can no longer get her 8th graders immersed in books that completely captivated 8th graders ten years ago. “They just can’t focus,” she said.
How can we help kids learn to focus? Modeling is key; if teachers themselves are dynamically focused, children can catch and internalize that energy. Intrinsic motivation is also key. When kids are solving problems and making things they care about, their ability to concentrate blooms.
These things we know. But we are up against greater odds than we’ve known. More than ever before, Sistema programs need to be crucibles for inquiry about concentration. I believe we must – because we can – become leaders in this inquiry.