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.”

High-tech cheating

One third of teens admitted using a cell phone to cheat during tests in a Common Sense Media poll.  Two thirds said other kids use a cell phone to cheat.  Yet 23 percent say it’s not cheating to use notes stored on a cell phone during  a test; 20 percent think it’s OK to text answers to test questions to their friends.

Seventy-six percent of parents say that cell phone cheating happens at their teens’ schools, but only 3% believe their own teen has ever used a cell phone to cheat.

More than half of teens surveyed admitted using the internet to plagiarize.

Common Sense Medis is releasing a white paper on Digital Literacy and Citizenship in the 21st Century.