21st Century Learning

Is the 'App Mentality' Killing Students' Creativity?

App Teaser

Back in the early 2000s, Katie Davis was teaching fourth grade. She learned basic HTML so she could post her weekly homework and class helpers on a Web page. Although her site was static (think Web 1.0 before Blackboard and eChalk) she was amazed at her students’ reactions. “My students loved it,” she said. “They were so proud that we had the only classroom website. They were thrilled to see either their name or their picture on the website. It was really interesting to me to see how captivated they were.”

Davis filed this reaction away, thinking that one day she might like to explore the effects digital media have on America’s youth. She got the opportunity while working on the Developing Minds and Digital Media (DM2) project with Harvard professor Howard Gardner, best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. The DM2 project explores the intersection of human development and digital media in both cognitive and social domains. 

Today’s youth, according to Davis and Gardner, are not just immersed in apps, but they view their lives as a string of ordered apps. They believe that all their desires and questions (“Where’s the closest Starbuck’s?” “Who won the 1978 World Series?”) should be satisfied or answered by an app. If an app doesn’t exist to satisfy the desire or answer the question, then someone should create it. Further, if the required app cannot be created, then the desire or question doesn’t or shouldn’t matter.   

This mindset is what Davis and Gardner call the “app mentality,” a concept they explore in their book The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World. Davis, who is an assistant professor at The University of Washington Information School, said that digital media has created a world in which “there should be and are immediate answers to all our questions. It’s sort of like an algorithmic way of thinking … I input this and I get this out. It’s going to be a very clear and immediate answer.” 

Individuals with this mindset, most notably American’s youth, leave themselves little time for sitting with ambiguity or complexity, puzzling over specific scenarios. “The emphasis is on the immediate, the definitive,” said Davis. “If I do this, then I’ll get this outcome.” Today’s adolescents systematically move from step to step, navigating their lives much like they navigate their apps: with very few opportunities to take detours on unexpected paths. 

The Case for Quiet Reflection
Davis and Gardner divide apps and their users into two categories. Individuals who use apps to pursue new possibilities are “app-enabled.” Those who allow apps to restrict or determine procedures, choices or goals are “app-dependent.” Apps are great if they assist with ordinary stuff and free up their users to explore new paths and ponder the mysteries of life, Davis and Gardner write. But apps, they warn, may be creating a new variety of couch potatoes who don’t think for themselves or pose new questions. Psychologically speaking, apps may simply line the road to serfdom. 

Some adolescents play video games or text to fill time when they’re bored. Many experts lament the lack of time youth spend in quiet reflection, a common theme among academics and the press. This lack of reflection may be causing them harm. Researchers have identified a number of benefits that accrue when the brain is at rest (relatively speaking) and focused inward. Downtime appears to play a restorative role, promoting feelings of well-being and, ultimately, helping individuals to focus their attention more effectively when necessary. “There’s a part of the brain called the default mode,” said Davis. “It’s when you’re not directing your attention outward but sort of focused inward and not really doing a whole lot.” While in this state, the brain is actually doing plenty, most importantly actively forming connections. 

Two of the most important aspects of children’s emotional development — self-awareness and empathy — are formed during this default mode. “This suggests that if we’re spending so much time externally focused and focusing on what other people think of us … or just filling time on our phones playing Candy Crush … there’s less time for the default mode of the brain to be active and to develop that self-understanding and empathy,” said Davis. 

For individuals to make intelligent decisions about their lives, they need to step back and take stock, said Gardner. “This is true whether one is seven or 70. Since young people are often impulsive and prone to mak[ing] ill-considered decisions, it's especially important for them to develop the habit of shutting off their devices, taking a walk, looking around at the scene, reflecting on what has happened and thinking ahead to what might come next. If one is being bombarded by messages and feels compelled to respond at all hours of the day or night, then one has difficulty taking control of one's life.”

Digital Media’s Effect on Students' Creativity
In addition to possibly hurting adolescents’ potential to form connections of self-awareness and empathy, digital media may also be affecting creativity in visual arts and fiction writing. Davis and Gardner analyzed artifacts created by middle- and high-school students between 1989 and 2011. They gathered 354 random pieces of published visual art from Teen Ink magazine. Two fine arts graduate students developed a coding scheme reflecting the individual elements of the artistic decisions made by each artist, considering composition, background, medium and themes.

After considering the criteria codes, Davis and Gardner found that the more recent works demonstrated increased complexity, pushing artistic boundaries further than the pieces from the early 1990s. The percentage of “conservative” pieces declined from 33 percent of the early pieces to 19 percent of the later pieces, whereas the number of “unconventional” pieces rose from 19 percent to 28 percent. 

When Davis and Gardner looked at students’ fiction writing, however, they found a different trend. They analyzed middle- and high-school fiction writing from a school in the South and one in the Northeast. The more recent samples, they found, failed to push literary boundaries as far as the earlier works. “They tended to be more traditional stories. They had less fantasy elements than the earlier pieces. If the author was a middle-school student, then often the protagonist was a middle school student. Often the story took place in a school,” said Davis. The newer writings lacked “genre play.”

By comparison, the earlier writings featured far more fantasy elements, with made-up worlds, creatures and scenarios. “It was a completely opposite trend from what we were seeing in visual art,” said Davis. She can’t say exactly why adolescents’ creativity has increased in visual arts and declined in writing, but she does offer a theory. Although the past 20 years have seen significant growth in digital technology, that hasn’t been the only significant change. Teaching philosophy has undergone a sea change, especially in language arts.

Teachers spend a great deal of time encouraging their students to master the five-paragraph essay. Davis said students are taught to organize clearly and to do what is safe. This has had “an impact on kids’ writing and what they’re willing to try out in their writing, at least for school. It may be a different situation entirely for the writing they are doing in informal context.” 

On the other hand, Davis believes that digital media have played an important role in students’ increased creativity in the visual arts. Today’s students have access to an abundance of visual art from any number of digital platforms and may be inspired by the art they can access. Ready-made visual art is only a mouse click or finger swipe away. 

When it comes to the physical act of creating art, students have a wide range of digital tools that assist in the creative process. Digital media has lowered the floor, so to speak, and has allowed more students than ever to create art, said Davis. That said, she points out that all apps have constraints that stifle a student’s creativity. 

Gardner also has a theory about the increase in visual creativity. “It's reasonable to assume that young people today spend much more time looking at and experimenting with visual effects on their devices, and they have less time and inclination to read extended works of fiction.  We know for sure that unless one reads a lot, one cannot become a skilled writer,” he said.

Davis offers a litany of positives digital media offer today’s adolescent, like the opportunity for self-expression and creativity and the opportunity to start, maintain and strengthen personal relationships. However, she said, technology enables some actions and stifles others. “It shapes our actions in specific ways. In order for us to retain our human agency, it is important for us to have that understanding and be willing to strike out on our own without our technology from time to time,” she concluded.