Life moves in a series of rhythms. In each day there is a natural rhythm to the rising and setting of the sun, and in each year there is a rhythm to the passing of seasons. Even closer to home, life itself depends on the ever-changing rhythm of our heart and lungs. And, in our daily lives, we experience the varied rhythms of stress, productivity, relaxation, rest, and pleasure.

Two contrasting rhythms that have been highly present in my awareness lately have been analog and digital rhythms. 

Defining Analog & Digital Rhythms

It is tempting to define analog rhythms simply as ‘anything not involving technology’ and digital rhythms as ‘anything involving the use of technology;’ however, as this clever op-ed on a bicycle computer makes clear – the line between digital and analog is becoming increasingly blurred.

Analog rhythm simply reflects a state of continual variability in response to direct feedback from the environment. We can think of an old-fashioned time-piece or a vinyl record as analogous examples.

Digital rhythm, on the other hand, reflects the organization of variable input into discrete units and values. A digital clock is a simple example of a digital rhythm.

My interest here has not been in the difference in analog and digital rhythms as reflected in devices. Rather, I am fascinated by the experience and effects of these rhythms in human minds, bodies, social groups, and the process of learning.

In this context, we can understand these two rhythms as follows:

Digital rhythm – any rhythm that our mind/body assumes when we interface with digital technology (using phones, typing on keyboards, watching TV, looking at powerpoint slides, etc.).

Analog rhythm – any rhythm that results from the direct interface between the mind/body and the immediate environment (creating art, sports, conversation, going for a walk, doing something with your hands, chores, writing a letter, etc.).

Try it Before You Buy It

To fully appreciate this distinction I invite you to take a moment to pause and reflect on the following situations. Instead of simply scanning them and assuming an intellectual understanding, actually take 10-30 seconds for each situation to see if you can feel the difference in your body, mind, and emotions for each experience.

In each situation, does your body feel relaxed or tense? Do your emotions reflect a state of ease or agitation? Are your thoughts clear and focused or scattered? Are you present to the people, places, and things around you, or is your attention elsewhere?

  • Listening to a powerpoint lecture vs. having a group discussion in a circle
  • Going for a walk in nature vs. walking with your headphones in
  • Typing an email vs. hand-writing a letter
  • Watching a live performance vs. Watching TV
  • Creating something with your hands (art, woodworking, sculpting) vs. creating something on a screen
  • Having a face-face conversation vs. interacting on social media
  • Looking at your phone vs gazing out the window

The Intrinsic Value of Analog

If you actually took the time to feel into the above situations, it likely became clear to you that there is an intrinsic value to analogous experiences. These analog rhythms typically induce a state of presence, pleasure, focus, and creativity not found through digital experiences. There is simply something about feeling the direct impact of our interactions with the world around us that the digital world cannot replace.

This is not to say that either analog or digital rhythms are bad, good, worse, or better. Digital technology can, and will continue to, enable amazing innovation, highly efficient learning, improved quality of life, and increased productivity the world-over.

It is to say that both rhythms have value and that if we are not intentional with our attentional resources we may quickly find that digital rhythms are replacing the experience of analog rhythms in our lives, and particularly in our classrooms.

Analog & Digital Rhythms in the Classroom

There is a preponderance of digital rhythms in schools. Increasingly, classrooms are now infiltrated with smart boards, smartphones, and smart tablets. Many schools proudly announce that they are a 1-1 student-tablet school, and there are endless grants available to increase the available technology in schools.

As an example, I recently observed an advanced placement high school class where every student had their computer screen open, were referencing the lecture slides on the smart board, and were being kept on track by a series of digital timers.

This undoubtedly enables more efficiency in learning, but we have to question what is lost when we strip away a more analog (human) way of interacting. By removing the human element from learning – conversation, uncertainty, interaction, social cues, direct feedback – we are literally altering the rhythm with which our body and mind process and learn new information.

The Race for Our Attention

This alteration in the rhythm and allocation of our attention may not be benign. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, has made a compelling case for how tech companies are literally hijacking (and competing for) our attention. As he says in his TED talk, “Technology is not neutral – it is a race for our attention.”

Further still, there already exists a growing body of scientific evidence that too much screen time results in negative effects on the human brain, including overall cognitive impairment and damage to regions specifically related to empathy, compassion, relational skills, and impulse control.

So, What Can We Do About This?

When we consider the role of mindfulness in schools, one easy way to integrate mindfulness (without any curriculum, training, program, or additional cost) is simply to bring awareness to the difference between analog and digital rhythms. We can then begin to actively create situations where students more frequently engage in an analog rhythm (gardening, creating art, PE, peer-peer interaction, etc).

In short, consider turning off the smart board and having a conversation. Get curious about what will arise when there is less lecture and more interaction, less downloading of information and more allowance for the natural process of learning to occur.

Here are a few other concrete recommendations for finding more analog rhythm:

    • Use interactive teaching styles like Socratic seminar, cooperative learning structures, and active engagement strategies
    • Balance time spent on devices with time spent ‘unplugged’
    • Create intentional spaces or blocks of time that are ‘device-free’
    • Find ways to incorporate time in nature into the school day (everything in nature follows an analog rhythm)
    • Plan more ‘hands-on, brains-on’ activities that incorporate elements of experiential learning not dependent on technology.
    • Provide increased student choice and unstructured times for collaborative learning and projects that involve social interaction
    • Actually teach students to notice and feel there physical, mental, and emotional responses to time spent in a digital rhythm vs time spent in an analog rhythm
    • Have students experiment with retention and memory by comparing digital and handwritten note taking methods
    • Play!

Apply Your Own Oxygen Mask First

As adults, it is critical that we manage our attention wisely so that we remain resourced enough to show up fully in all aspects of our lives. One simple practice you may wish to dedicate some time towards (or perhaps even an entire day towards) is ‘auto-rhythmia – doing what you want to do when you want to do it.

This practice may sound simplistic, but there is a demonstrable restorative effect in just following the needs and cues of your body. Go ahead, give yourself permission…eat when you want to eat, drink when you want to drink, sleep when you want to sleep, move when you want to move, and play when you want to play!

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