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Learning at its Best

“What Happened to Downtime?” or the Affordances of Woolgathering

What Happened to Downtime? The Extinction of Deep Thinking & Sacred Space :: Articles :: The 99 Percent.

According to Scott Belsky we should value the “creative pause”. These are moments of scheduled aloneness and a time to woolgather uninterrupted over big questions.

Sacred niches where creative pauses can live are becoming extinct.  Who loses?  Our imaginations will pay a scary toll for giving up sacred spaces. Then why do  we sacrifice this interior life? First, we are plagued by fear when we do and that is why it is nothing new that we have always sought distraction. Connection trumps anxiety. Connection is a Maslovian need.  According to Belsky, “It is now possible to always feel loved and cared for, thanks to the efficiency of our “comment walls” on Facebook and seamless connection with everyone we’ve ever known.”  He calls this rejection of downtime, “insecurity work”.

The solution for “insecurity work” is a revision of C.S. Forster’s dictum to stay connected, “Always connect, but also re-connect and reclaim your own sacred spaces.”  Belsky makes five concrete suggestions to renew our deep thinking landscape.

1. We need to create new “rituals for unplugging”.
 The Sabbath Manifesto movement is a community of practice that advocates tithing a day to the god of disconnection.

2. We need time to think deeply.  Belsky advises that we “carve out a 1-2 hour block every day for taking a walk or grabbing a cup of coffee and just ponder some of those bigger things.”

3. Fifteen minutes to meditate and twenty minutes to nap.

4. Invest in your own awareness. Taking a page from the mindfulness movement we need to acknowledge that connection distracts us from feeling.  Admittedly, these feelings are ones we do not want to ‘invest’ in.  Anxiety and insecurity are part of the inner landscape and awareness of them might be the first step toward mending them.

5. Protect the state of no-intent. The relentless pursuit of connection leads us away from the slacking that more often than not leads to the odd re-wirings and re-firings of neurons that ultimately lead to new stuff.  An apt word for this might be the old expression “woolgathering”  The OED defines ˈwool-ˌgathering’  as “the action of gathering fragments of wool torn from sheep by bushes.”  Figuratively, it is the embodiment of a mind engaged in this state of no or very low intent.

What draws me to this article so powerfully is the realization that I while I have contributed to this headlong crash into distraction I can also hasten my students toward the brambles to gather wool and an occasional blackberry and a chigger or tick, too.  Technology knits us together in ways more thorough than even imagined in John Stuart Mills’ panopticon, but (and I know I am mixing my metaphors here) its keen edge just as surely cuts us off from primordial and profound inner connections. Therefore, my new duty is to control this inner Babbitt and cease this blind optimistic boosterism of all tech that connects.  It has a dark side.  It represses just as sure as it uplifts.  It needs to be put in its place.  That is my duty, too. I need to show my learners, students and teachers alike, how to gather wool.

To that end here are some of my own ideas.  I hope you will add to them here or drop me a letter at Terry Elliott, Blue Mailbox, 42765.  Don’t worry it will get there.

1.  Have lunch with students.

2.  Declare one school day a tech Sabbath.

3.  Teach students cursive or calligraphy.

4.  Hand write postcards and thank you’s.

5. Make “no net” assignments that only rely on personal reflection and deep thinking.

6.  Demand quiet and conspicuous woolgathering as a legitimate part of class. There must be no intent to this, but if some interesting carp surfaces, then let it be a moment of both personal and community discovery.

7.  Breathe with students and remind them to breathe.

8.  Ask what it was like to live without the net.

9.  Imagine and re-imagine what we have seen, felt, heard, spoken, thought, and experienced.  View with our mind’s eye and check out our own inscapes.

10. Re-consider ‘slacker culture’ and ‘idleness’.

About tellio

This website will be dedicated to the miscellany of living la vida English. The audience will be weblog companero: students, teachers, and fellow travellers down this road barely trampled. I will be adding occasional posts about where I am going, where you might be going, or wherever I please. The map ain't the damn territory. I am doing this because I know it makes me feel better about the trip if I have a notebook along with me. All the better to make it digital and public.


7 thoughts on ““What Happened to Downtime?” or the Affordances of Woolgathering

  1. Terry, I really appreciate the push towards preserving moments of being without intent. Being at home within is as important as exploring outside ourselves.

    I wonder about technology as the scape goat. It has myriad uses, but I generally see those uses as ours, and I wonder if you see or imagine any tech-enabled ways to connect inwards. Streaming Yoga videos on YouTube or Netflix? A game that learns its player? The family picture album hosted on the cloud?

    How connected are technology and disconnect in your mind? I often find myself in uttering.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 20, 2011, 11:37 am
    • In any ecology there are niches. I see the external technologies are crowding out the interior ones–reflection, internal focus, awareness. I am trying to reclaim at least part of the niche. I use a sleep software call Pzziz (ridiculous name really), I am connected socially to other runners via my Nike + app, and I use wordprocessors like JDarkroom and timer apps like Pomodoro to reduce distraction. And I even use Fluid and Pocket Frogs to soothe myself while in line, but… my purpose in writing this was to make sure that there is a brighter line in my own practice between valuing a process or tool and being guilty of idolatry.

      The hubris of technology (and I loves the stuff) was the subject of my previous post and I think that led to further consideration here. I think we can have both but only with vigilance. Technology can disconnect. We can see it in our own lives and in the lives of our students.

      It can lead to what the Hopi termed koyaanisqatsi, a life out of balance. But we must be aware of the elements of balance or else the bright fulcrum fadeth away and life flattens into the happy soma of my monitor, my tweet, and my wall. That is as dead an ecosystem as the bottom of the Gulf near the Deep Horizon rig. Dead like an Iowa farm, all corn and soy and no animals.

      Perhaps I am just whistling in dark and everyone around me has got a handle on this, but I feel the next great wave of illusion forming, augmented reality (or as some have characterized it, the Matrix.) What I worry about in the end is that the old joke will come true, “Reality, what a concept!”

      Thanks for the comment. I really value your voice and our conversation.

      Posted by tellio | May 20, 2011, 12:38 pm
      • I will remember “koyaanisqatsi.” I share your fear regarding the blended technology championed by somer schools and reformers. I’m saddened that there are virtual school software “solutions” for standardizing online education when a few free apps like Twitter and Skype can give student access to experts and the world. I think our school system, as a whole, is looking for programs that will do what the system has traditionally asked teachers to do: keep kids seated and producing “answers.”

        I love the thought-provoking posts & comments – keep’em coming!

        Onward towards practices that eschew idolatry and imbalance!

        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 22, 2011, 11:43 am
  2. Terry,
    Loved this post! It is so relevant to me right now as I struggle with the issues you raise here. Have you read, The Winter of our Disconnect by Susan Maushart? I think it’s one you’d like given what you write here. This is what it says on the cover: “How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale”. Maushart spends considerable time talking about the issue of over scheduled kids and their parents who feel the need to make sure their little darlings experience no discomforts, and then go ahead and solve problems for them. In addition, she has a section about the history of the terms “boredom” and “interesting” – words that did not come into the English language until the 18th century when the middle class was growing and people had more leisure time to contend with.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | May 29, 2011, 10:42 am
    • Thanks, Elisa. This is just the type of book I love to listen to on my ugly commute so I will be looking for it. Also, I wonder if we lost our leisure through some techno-pocalypse if we might lose or re-tool both “interesting” and “boring” or is that genie out of the bottle forever. Makes me wonder what new words and new genies are being uncorked even now.

      Posted by Terry Elliott | June 21, 2011, 8:25 am
  3. Terry,

    I’m putting together a unit on Media Literacies, and I came across an article I thought you might enjoy: Inside is a link to a whole series in the New York Times called, “Your Brain on Computers.” I am not convinced about the benefit or detriment of being connected on youth, but your call for balance seems well backed up.


    Posted by Tommy Buteau | July 22, 2011, 1:52 am
    • Tommy, great to have you here – thanks for the link. I often wonder about critical approaches to moderation, about non-addictive technology use, and about the addictiveness of learning.

      I hope you’ll share some of your work with students and “This I believe…” with us here on the Coöp!

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 22, 2011, 12:31 pm

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