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Watching the Olympics has been a mixture of admiration and frustration. Like many Americans, I was caught by the story of 15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky who is the same age of many of my students. At 11:00 PM Friday night, there was engaging hype leading up to her 800 meter freestyle event. The NCB sports commentator noted, "The race will be about eight minutes," before the digital buzz sent the line of swimmers simultaneously into the pool. By the end of the first two minutes, Ledecky was a little ahead of the world record pace, and in the lead. She was competing against the hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington of Britain and the 2008 bronze medalist Lotte Friis of Denmark. Ledecky's arms churned the water, sometimes fully ahead of the animated world record line, sometimes only fingertips stroking its imaginary presence. The NBC commentator chatted away about her strategy; had she pulled in front too soon? Would her more seasoned rivals push her and then pass her? The race was exciting.
Suddenly, NBC cut away from the race to broadcast a series of commercials: a new sitcom, a credit card... who cares what else? The race was continuing in cyberspace while I impatiently waited for its return. Of course, I knew I was watching a rebroadcast. The event had been decided hours ago. I even knew who won, but that did not stop my level of engagement until NBC cut me off.
Six minutes into the race, NBC's economic responsibilities addressed, Ledecky appeared once more on the screen, solidly in the lead. The commentator who had questioned her strategy was now unabashedly cheering her forward as were the crowds watching the race. She demonstrated that brand of immortal teenage exuberance, simply swimming as fast as she could for as long as she could until she literally hit the wall. This youngest member of the U.S. swim team had finished the race for the gold in 8 minutes, 14.63 second and narrowly missed a world record. Then, I heard the commentator ask, "The future of USA swimming! Have we seen it tonight?"
"No, we did not!" I snarled back to his rhetorical question, a response made more ridiculous by my awareness of the digital divide between question and audience. No one watching that broadcast saw the race live. Nor did we see the race entire. Instead we saw a truncated version of an Olympic event. We saw the beginning, and the end, but we missed the middle...the plot where the protagonist fights against an antagonist, the water, an opponent, herself.
I often joke with my fellow teachers that a student's attention span in class is 24 minutes, the length of a sit-com without commercials. Understanding this programmed behavior has helped to guide my teaching. I get 24 minutes of "real understanding" in a 43 minute period; the rest of the time is administrative (attendance, homework, announcements,lesson prep or product collection, etc). But a sitcom is not a continuous 24 minutes, rather, each episode has several breaks at approximately eight minutes intervals throughout a broadcast. The first eight minutes introduces characters and conflict. The second eight minutes features conflict confrontation. The third eight minutes deal with plot resolution. Every eight minutes, a commercial intrusion follows the "cliffhanger moment" or a plot complication to keep viewers intrigued.
However, this broadcast now has me concerned. The race itself was eight minutes, the amount of time that networks have conditioned the public to expect in a story sequence. The race itself could have been shown in its entirety. Instead, NBC pulled away only two minutes into Ledbecky's race. Why? More than likely, the decision was made to maximize revenues and cram in more commercials for a committed viewing audience. Some executive probably thought that the race would look the same throughout; swimming is not as flashy as gymnastics or basketball. This, however, I see as a dangerous precedent. In chopping up this eight minute race, NBC has catered to the desires of those who only want the outcome.
Many of my students want to read only the beginning of a story and the end "to see how it turns out", without reading the story itself. These students would rather have the answers rather than experience learning. They think the middle is "boring". NBC's coverage of this particular race is similarly condensed. The NBC model suggests that the race, an eight minute sequence of Ledecky's story, can be interrupted, and that the middle of her story is not as important as the concluding last lap.
When we look for reasons as to why students are unable to pay attention for an extended period of time, we might look at the powerful influences of media. How the media tells stories: news, sports, sit-coms, influences the pattern of stories. Audiences will adjust to the shortened version. Ledecky is the same age as many of my students; she is part of the generation that operates on the 24 minute window of learning opportunity. Her race, the plot of her conflict, at the very minimum deserved the eight minutes of uninterrupted broadcast time her generation has been trained to expect before a commercial break. NBC's methods of broadcasting the "future of swimming" is an indication of a how media will fragmented or remove parts of a story in the future; our students' attention spans will soon reflect the same.