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Neomania is Making Us Crazier (and Less Effective) Teachers

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I'm sorry to be all alarmist with the title here, but seriously: neomania is a problem, and if you're alive with access to the Internet, you might have it.

Let me back up: neomania — an obsession with what's new — wasn't in my vocabulary until I recently heard Mike Schmoker riff on it during a recent keynote speech. If you're at all familiar with Mike's work, you know that it makes sense that Mike would teach us this word. In Focus, Mike urges us teachers to plug our ears with wax and ignore the siren calls of the latest and greatest edufads, instead dedicating our limited time and energy to gaining excellence in three areas:

  • knowledge-rich, guaranteed, and viable curricula;
  • authentic literacy experiences across the school day; and
  • solid, effective instructional techniques.

(Focus has a second edition coming out this summer, by the way, so keep an eye out for that.*)

One of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers is that we don't have enough time. Some of this is structural — for example, we have fewer prep hours each week than teachers in the highest-performing nations (e.g., see p. 4 of this report) — but in my own experience I find that much of it is behavioral, too. Do I really need to check my email multiple times each day? Do I need to talk with my colleagues about the latest event in school politics? Do I need to check Twitter again? Is checking the news each day during lunch necessary?

The simple answers? No — I don't need to do those things. But I keep doing them, again and again, because I'm obsessed with what's new. I'm a neomaniac. And so time that could be spent working on what Mike recommends — great curricula, great lessons, and lots of mastery-supporting reading, writing, and speaking experiences — is instead fractured and reduced by the latest twitch toward [insert favorite distraction browser tab here].

And certainly, this isn't just a natural flaw — it's exacerbated by our present age, filled with technologies and media that are designed to be addicting. In his brilliant and brief “The Acceleration of Addictiveness,” essayist Paul Graham writes that things are getting more addicting all the time, “which means increasing numbers of things we like will be transformed into things we like too much.” He goes on:

At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth. Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can't compete with Facebook.

But back to us neomaniacal teachers, especially the ones that teach in the US where non-instructional hours are in short supply.

How do we overcome our neomania?

“Hi, my name is Dave, and I'm a neomaniac”

The first step is probably like AA programs and their ilk: acknowledge that there's a problem. Any teacher saying, “Hey, I don't have enough time to do everything I'm expected to do” (virtually all of us, at least in the US) must come to grips with all kinds of things (like how to discern the things that matter most and satisfice the things that don't), but the one I'd like to treat here is this: new isn't what I need.

First, we can attack those obvious neomaniacal time-wasting habits we've picked up.

  • Reading the news each day may keep me “informed,” but there is no guarantee that what I'm being informed about is going to make me a wiser or more capable citizen or teacher. Much of what's on the news is noise. Noise makes it difficult to think clearly and deeply. Deep and clear thinking takes time.
  • Scanning Twitter or Pinterest or Instagram for teaching ideas could very well get you something for tomorrow's lesson, but it's not going to teach you to think clearly and deeply about teaching. One article on neomania recommends limiting social media use to 10 minutes per day.
  • Checking your email several times per day will ensure you can quickly respond to the things that need a response, but nearly everything in our inboxes isn't emergency material. Instead, try processing email once at lunch and one other time. I've written about email here and here.

And then, we can start thinking critically about a word I see vaunted quite a bit during my brief, daily forays onto teacher Twitter: innovation.

It's my opinion that innovation for the sake of innovation isn't sensible in a system where time is short and each student life is precious. At companies like Apple and Google and SpaceX with massive research and development budgets, I'm all for innovation for innovation's sake because I end up with a better phone and self-driving cars and sports cars in outer space traveling at 36,594 mi/h toward Mars. When the innovative work fails, a rocket blows up, or Google's social network bombs, it's all part of progress.

But in schools, I think we know what our students need in order to flourish in the twenty-first century. As I write all the time, they need lots of opportunities across the school day to read and write and speak and argue and build knowledge, and they need teachers well-versed in cultivating the key beliefs that underlie human motivation. Six things — and none of them are new.

*Like Mike, I have a book coming out this summer called These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most. Mike Schmoker has read it, and he says it's “among the most helpful, passionate, practical, insightful teaching resources I have ever come across.” If you'd like to be the first to hear details on the book, sign up here.

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