Teachers: Technology cuts attention spans

Diverted and distracted by technology, students can’t focus or persevere, say teachers in two new surveys.

In a Pew Internet Project survey, nearly 90 percent of teachers said digital technologies are creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”  Although the Internet helps students develop better research skills, teachers said, 64 felt technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

Seventy-three percent of teachers said entertainment media has cut students’ attention spans, according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit. A majority said it hurt students’ writing and speaking skills.

“Distraction” could be seen as a judgment call, Pew’s Kristen Purcell told the New York Times. Some teachers think education “must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn.”

But teachers worry about that too, the Times reports.

“I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said Hope Molina-Porter, 37, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, Calif., who has taught for 14 years. She teaches accelerated students, but has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of their written work.

She said she did not want to shrink from the challenge of engaging them, nor did other teachers interviewed, but she also worried that technology was causing a deeper shift in how students learned. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.

“Are we contributing to this?” Ms. Molina-Porter said. “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”

Both younger and older teachers worried about technology’s impact on their students’ learning.

It’s not likely students have lost the ability to focus, responds cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. But flashy technology with immediate rewards may have eroded students’ willingness to focus on mundane tasks.

Kids learn early that very little effort can bring a big payoff, he writes.

When a toddler is given a toy that puts on a dazzling display of light and sound when a button is pushed, we might be teaching him this lesson.

In contrast, the toddler who gets a set of blocks has to put a heck of a lot more effort (and sustained attention) into getting the toy to do something interesting–build a tower, for example, that she can send crashing down.

“It’s hard for me to believe that something as fundamental to cognition as the ability to pay attention can moved around a whole lot,” Willingham writes. “It’s much easier for me to accept that one’s beliefs–beliefs about what is worthy of my attention, beliefs about how much effort I should dispense to tasks–can be moved around, because beliefs are a product of experience.”

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  1. My DH and I always figured that practice improves performance, whether in academics, in athletics or in the arts. By extension, we applied that to attention span and to memory. From toddlerhood, we expected the kids to be able to pay attention longer and longer, sit quietly longer and longer and to be able to memorize more and more basic facts, poems, songs etc. It seemed to work, too. We insisted that the Christmas gift of an Atari (PacMan!) be left at the grandparents; to be used on 3-4 visits per year. We only caved on a Game Boy for our youngest son, which could only be used at wrestling tournaments and on long car trips (imagine arriving at a tournament for a 6 am weigh-in, being seeded into the semifinals and wrestling for the first time at 5:45 pm). We couldn’t help but notice that our kids’ contemporaries who played the most video games were also the most likely to be ADD/ADHD. I’m not saying that video games caused ADD, but I’ve always believed that they aggravated it, by providing a constant stream of instant stimulation. In sports and performing arts, it’s easy to see which kids will commit to practice, because they are the ones who perform the best. We’ve seen many kids with lots of raw talent fall by the wayside because they wouldn’t practice fundamental skills and/or do the conditioning. That’s accepted without question in those fields; only in academics are fundamentals and practice treated as irrelevant, at best, and child abuse, at worst.

    • YES, YES, YES!!!!!!

      It’s not that the students are incapable of prolonged attention, but they’ve become habituated to quick-paced FUN ALL THE TIME! Real life must be so boring for them.

      We need to teach them to slow down, pay attention to the smaller, slower stimulations around them, and help them get off the BIGGER, FASTER, LOUDER treadmill.

    • Florida resident says:

      Dear Momof4 !
      As you probably learned from bringing up your kids, all children are different.
      Our son to his age 12 played over all the games he could possibly get, so the only one un-played by him yet was “operating system UNIX”. 18 years later it is stll his favorite ‘game’.
      Respectfully yours, F.r.

    • I am to try the methods in the e-book on claosrosm management, next year when I start teaching at primary school in Johannesburg, South Africa. A student teacher at the Universtry of Johannesburg.Kind RegardsStewart McCallumps need information on dealing with large classes! (between 35-70 learners in a class)

  2. When is everybody going to come to the realization, that the constant, perversive invasion of media into the lives of our children, is not only creating shorter attention spans, but it’s also leading us into a future world of where parenting doesn’t matter anymore.

    For now, in the eyes of the child, the “almighty gadget” has risen to an unfortuante level of dominance in their lives, and has become the “new parent”, or “alter-parent”, from which they can take their cues, lessons, and social conduct. Move aside Mom and Dad, you’re not needed anymore.

    We’re at a societal and technical crossroad, and the view I’m getting is not very pretty. And to make matters worse, we have elected a government that just doesn’t care about the safety and welfare of children anymore. Imagine the technology lobbyists who would hate for an article such as this, to go viral among parents….

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    In honor of the upcoming election, I’m going to put some of the blame on … Big Bird.

    Actually, I’m using Big Bird as a metaphor for all the educational TV programs that are filled with singing and dancing and are just so entertaining because, you know, you have to hook the kids with that in order to get them to learn. Then, they come to school and, surprise!, it isn’t so entertaining.

    With the best of intentions …

    • OMG! You are the first person other than myself that has attacked Sesame Street on this issue! I feel a little less like a loon now…

  4. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.

    I think this has been happening for some time. My oldest child is almost in college. I remember administrators at her public school stating, “kids are different today” more than 10 years ago. The “KADT” argument was usually advanced in support of lesson plans which supposedly were designed for children’s ever-shorter attention spans.