No Child (Consumer) Left Behind
Bringing Balance to a Media Generation's In- and Out-of-School Learning

By Ken Komoski
Guest Education Week column
Vol. 24, Issue 42, Pages 36-3, July 13, 2005

The most valued currency of the new millennium is not the U.S. dollar, nor the euro. It’s not even the yuan. It’s the time and attention of America’s school-age “tweens and teens”–those youths between the ages of 8 and 12, and 13 and 18, whose needs, wants, and “must haves” affect more consumer purchases than most of us imagine. 

The value of the time and attention of America’s 50 million tweens and teens is evidenced by the billions of dollars spent developing and marketing the products–especially media-related products–on which these young people and their families lavish not only money but, inevitably, more time and attention. Is this a win-win exchange of two valuable currencies, with no downside? 

A starting point for answering this question can be found in the Kaiser Family Foundation report: Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds. It provides baseline information from which to begin a much-needed dialogue about the educational, social, and economic implications of youths’ media use. Based on a nationally representative sample of 2,000 participants in these two age groups, and including journal entries by 700 of them, the report documents that during the 2003-04 school year, tweens and teens invested close to 6½ hours a day in non-school-related media multitasking: concurrently watching TV, DVDs, and videotapes; listening to the radio, CDs, tapes, and MP3s; playing video games; using computers and the Internet; and reading newspapers, magazines, and books. The report’s findings indicate that parents fail to set or enforce rules on media use and that children’s bedrooms have become multimedia centers.

Although the study doesn’t explore the effects of this large time-attention media investment on learning, video-gaming advocates say that kids are learning complex problem-solving skills that generalize to real life. But much of such learning is marginal, and some–as studies of TV and video-game violence suggest–puts vulnerable kids at risk of copying dangerous behaviors.

But what promises to be the most important effect of this large time-attention investment by America’s 8- to 18-year-olds is the imbalance it demonstrates between a year-round, at-home investment of almost 6½ hours a day in non-school-related media multitasking, and a less than half-year, in-school investment of under four hours a day in academic, on-task learning. Typically, that in-school investment is 3.8 hours a day (five 45-minute periods) of core academic classes, totaling barely 700 hours during a 180-day school year. 

Although the Kaiser study focused only on participants’ out-of-school media investment during the school year, it’s unlikely that Generation M’s almost 6½-hour-a-day media investment lessens during the other 185 days of the year. If so, we’re looking at year-round individual tween-teen investments in non-school-related media multitasking of more than 2,000 hours. 

Compare this to their individual investments of under 700 hours during a 180-day school year in core academic classes, and there’s a 3-to-1 imbalance. Moreover, if we take into account research by David Berliner and others showing that during the typical 45-minute academic class, students are seldom engaged in on-task learning for more than a third of class time, the 3-to-1 imbalance balloons to 9-to-1. By either measure, this demonstrates a large time-attention learning imbalance for some 50 million tween-teen educational consumers of Generation M. 

Will American corporations be willing to motivate Generation M with ‘learn and earn’ discounted consumer products and services?

This imbalance–and how to narrow it–deserves to be the subject of an intense national conversation. We need serious discussion about the effect of this imbalance on how well our preadolescents and teenagers are engaged with developing their own and the nation’s intellectual capital. A key question would be how much of a shift Generation M needs to start making to bring its current investment in non-school-related media multitasking into balance with on-task, school-related learning. The discussion also needs to address ways of motivating youths toward improving the quality of the intellectual capital they are producing. It needs to make American youths aware that the results of their current out-of-balance time-attention investments are being comparatively evaluated in a dynamic global environment where knowledge determines future prospects.

America’s imbalance of intellectual-capital development is evidenced across years of international comparative testing of youths in 38 countries in mathematics and science. Our young people don’t just come in “a poor second,” but too often a disturbing 18th or 19th. (Although the scores of 15 U.S. states often rank as high as second on such international tests, poor performance by at-risk students in the majority of states pulls down the United States’ overall performance.) This academic global imbalance is doubtless why, in a recent report on U.S. education reform, the National Association of Scholars, an independent group of educators, recommends that American schools have a longer school day and year, as many other countries do. For fiscal, cultural, and political reasons, however, the country is unlikely to follow suit any time soon. 

* * *

This fact of American life needs to be faced: The only significant time available for increasing the amount of engaged, on-task academic learning for our children must come from a rebalancing of their investments of time and attention in non-school-related media. The challenge is to motivate 50 million tween-teen Generation M education consumers—young people who have learned the benefits of living in the world’s pre-eminent consumer society—to become more discerning about what they are putting into their brains and bedroom media centers. 

This is not an easy task. The Generation M-ers who participated in the Kaiser Family Foundation study apparently see no problems in what they are currently doing. They report that a total of 6½ hours a day of non-school media multitasking has no effect on their grades. One wonders if they might agree that their school performance would be much better were they to invest, say, from 10 percent to 20 percent of their daily media playtime in using the computer for on-task academic learning. That modest a shift could double or triple the amount of on-task learning they experience during the typical 45-minute academic class.

The challenge of engaging America’s tweens and teens in this critically important rebalancing act demands the time and attention of concerned educators, business leaders, government policymakers, religious leaders, and, most of all, parents. As the director of the Kaiser study puts it: “These kids are spending the equivalent of a full-time work week using media, plus overtime. Anything that takes up that much space in their lives certainly deserves our full attention.” 

This “full attention” should include engaging young people—savvy consumers capable of helping themselves become more discriminating in their media choices—in a process that improves both the amount and the quality of the intellectual capital they are currently developing. If we fail to do so, we will continue to send them a risk-laden message: Whatever you’re doing with your media time is just fine by us. 

The world’s wealthiest democracy needs to find ways to motivate all its youths—not just its best—to invest more valuable time and attention in developing the intellectual capital on which the nation’s future depends. 

We need to send a different message—especially to poor, at-risk youths: Being smart about how you use media time can help you learn your way to earning a better life. It’s a No Child Left Behind message that might just motivate, energize, and empower all tweens and teens to accomplish the goals that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is meant to achieve.

Let’s ask poor kids (TV, Game Boy, PlayStation users, but no home computers) if they’d like to earn computers and broadband discounts by using these as learning tools to improve academic performance. (U.S. corporations discard millions of useable, earnable computers annually.) And let’s ask all tweens and teens—those who have home computers and those who might gain them—what other commodities and services they’d like to earn by investing from 10 percent to 20 percent of their non-school multitasking time in academically productive computer learning at home. The wish lists would be earnable rewards for doubling or tripling their current on-task academic-learning time.

Then let’s ask America’s business leaders if they’re willing to motivate Generation M with “learn and earn” discounted consumer products and services. The intellectual capital they’d be helping young people develop might just produce a generation that improves the nation’s global competitiveness. And, the idea of rewarding achievement in this way has a long and distinquished pedigree.

Twenty-six hundred years ago, at his famous school in ancient Croton, Pythagoras motivated his best students to solve increasingly difficult problems with rewards of silver. Three millennia later, the world’s wealthiest democracy needs to find ways to motivate all its youths–not just its best–to invest more valuable time and attention in developing the intellectual capital on which the nation’s future depends.

If we adults fail to invest our own time and attention in the creative search for better ways to motivate and engage at-risk tweens and teens in learning, we will be turning our backs on a growing national problem, and putting all Americans at risk. 

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