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Alum Kirk Mango: Blame gizmos for students’ ebbing capacity to listen, communicate, absorb?

June 11, 2012
Kirk Mango

Kirk Mango

On a Friday evening a couple weeks ago, my wife and I were out for a leisurely dinner at a popular Italian restaurant near where we live.

We were sitting at the back of the restaurant by a window at a table for two; love those two-person tables. The restaurant was crowded but the ambiance was comfortable, like usual, as we perused the menu looking for interesting new dishes, as well as the normal standbys, to indulge our palates.

However, through all the noise of adults conversing (Italian restaurants are known for their tightly grouped table and noisy atmosphere), I couldn’t help but notice a family of four (father, mother and two kids) sitting off to my right in the corner of the restaurant. I tried diligently to keep my attention on the menu, and with my wife, but I just couldn’t seem to help myself, as their lack of interaction seemed to draw my attention.

Must be the educator in me as it is a normal part of my day to evaluate behavior and address issues that come up in the classroom. In this case, I would not be addressing any issues, but my evaluating antennae sure had a fix on this family.

What really drew my attention was how little communication was going on between any of the four at the table. No, let me rephrase that. There was NO COMMUNICATION going on at all as each one was using some type of electronic gizmo (cell phone, iPad or something of that nature).

No discussions about school, the day, or events in anyone’s lives; nothing. Only the glow of the screen that each one was transfixed to.

Now many reading this might wonder how I would know all of this sitting at a different table in an Italian restaurant where noise from conversation is usually high.

First, these people were within five feet of where I was sitting, and there was no noise coming from their corner. And even though this family was off to my right, they were still within my peripheral vision. Coupled with a glance or two, it was easy for me to tell that no information was being shared from one to the other, at all, and for the whole time my wife and I sat, ordered, ate and paid our bill – there was nada.

Now I think my wife and I left before they did, and I cannot attest to what happened after that, but for the time we were there, about 45 minutes to an hour, there was no communication between the kids and parents, and little, if any, between the parents themselves – at least nothing of any substance.

Photo of hands using mobile phoneAnd that got me thinking.

Is all this technology, or better stated, the way we are using, teaching and accepting our kids’ use of all this technology, a good thing?

If what I witnessed that evening is something that becomes the norm, or has become the norm, what will happen to the art of discussion? The transfer of information through speaking to one another? The ability to communicate, one on one, or within a group, by vocalizing understandable sentences, and then being able to listen to someone else do the same, interpret appropriately what was said and then respond or act upon those statements as needed?

As a teacher, I often wonder (and much more often nowadays than in the past) why, when I take three to five minutes to explain to a class what we are doing for the day’s lesson, and the first question out of several students’ mouths is, “So, what are we doing today?” – after I got through explaining just that!

In fact, I have actually stated the day’s purpose in one or two sentences (what, about 20 seconds?) and received that same question – “So, what are we doing today?” – as the few in the class with the ability to listen looked at those questioners with dumbfounded looks on their face. And this is in a well-managed class where no one is talking and all eyes are on me (I don’t talk over students, nor do I continue without at least the appearance of their full attention).

Sometimes, it just boggles my mind.

Bringing this back to technology, the family in the corner of that Italian restaurant, and the anecdotal assumption on my part that communication and listening skills by our younger generation are going the way of the dinosaur.

Heck, how can I ever compete with the entertainment value of an iPad in a physical education classroom (gym) when what I will be expecting them to do is going to require definite physical effort, and, oh my gosh, need I say―sweat?

Why would they even want to pay attention to anything that comes out of my mouth when most of the communication they do is accomplished simply by pushing some buttons. No listening, interpretation of verbal cues or verbal response needed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love some of the new technology that is out there, and that is on the horizon; however, balance between those items and normal interaction between two (or more ) people is, at least to me, essential for us as a society, a community of people.

Maybe as teachers or coaches we shouldn’t wonder so much why little Johnny can’t seem to follow directions, remember his homework (I have had as much as 50 percent of a class not hand in an assignment that was mostly finished in class) or has no idea what he was expected to do even after it was explained.

Maybe little Johnny hasn’t acquired the listening and communicating skills needed in order to do the tasks listed above. Don’t know for sure, just saying …

About Kirk Mango

Former Northern Illinois University hall-of-fame gymnast Kirk Mango is widely acclaimed as the “Lord of the Rings” by virtue of his National Collegiate Athletic Association and Illinois High School Association still rings championships. A two-time NCAA Division I All-American (1977-78, 1978-79), the three-year NCAA championship qualifier used “iron-cross” strength, solid technique, swing and advanced dismount to become NIU’s second-ever national champion in 1979 when he defeated 1976 U.S. Olympian Kurt Thomas. The four-year NIU letterman also won league, district and IHSA state rings titles, beating Olympian Bart Conner in the 1975 finals. Mango, who has been a high school teacher for more than 30 years and a coach for 17 years , contributes regularly to ChicagoNow. His latest book, Becoming a True Champion (Rowman & Littlefield), shows athletes how to avoid the many pitfalls, and overcome the inevitable obstacles, so common in today’s sports culture.