More than 60 percent say they’re distracted by using digital devices; even more say other people’s use is distracting.
Instead of catering to short attention spans, schools should teach students to pay attention, writes Benjamin Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor, in Slate.
Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience.
Maintaining attention is a skill that can be learned, he argues. Students need to exercise their “attention muscle” to strengthen it.
Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.
Young people raised on brief, simplified info-bits won’t realize what they’re missing, Schwartz believes. “Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.”
“In the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short,” writes Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.
Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”
Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions.
Kamenetz sees the “pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style” as a sign of a new power dynamic. ”Many people have something to say.” In the traditional classroom, “traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.” On the Internet, no one has to listen to anyone else.
Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?”
The 21st century skill students lack is patience, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.
We oldsters grew up with “fewer sources of distraction and entertainment,” he writes. The TV had four channels. ”Digital natives” can avoid even mild boredom, most of the time. They never learn that patience brings rewards.
Jennifer Roberts, a Harvard art and architecture professor, tells students to select a painting in a Boston museum, study it for three hours and write a paper on it.
The duration is “meant to seem excessive,” Roberts says. She wants students to think they’ve seen all there is to see, keep looking and see more.
As part of a book she was writing on 18th century American painter John Singleton Copley, she studied at length the painting A Boy With a Flying Squirrel.
Despite her experience, it took time before “she noticed that the shape of the white ruff on the squirrel matches the shape of the boy’s ear, and is echoed again in the fold of the curtain over his left shoulder.”
Students “need to feel the pleasure of discovering that something you thought you had figured out actually has layers that you had not appreciated,” Willingham writes.
Boring is bad, responds Tim Holt. He accuses Willingham of shouting, Get off my lawn, you damn kids.
Last week, my tenth-grade students read the prologue of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; to supplement this, I had them listen to part of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 and read Exodus 32 (about the breaking of the tablets). The former has lyrics, sung by a contralto, that are only a slight rearrangement of “Zarathustra’s Roundelay”; the latter is important because Zarathustra speaks of seeking out tablet-breakers as companions. On my own, I have been thinking about how teachers are (or can be) breakers of tablets. I am making this analogy cautiously, so take it with all the salt you need.
In Exodus, Moses comes down to the mount to see that the people have made a gold calf idol (well, they brought Aaron the gold, and he made the idol for them). Moses arrives, sees the idol, and breaks the tablets in anger, the tablets that he had received from God. (Later, in Exodus 34, God gives him the words for the new tablets.) Moses then asks Aaron, how did this occur? And Aaron replies, “thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (King James version).
Now, I would suggest that one aspect of being a student (whether you’re attentive in class or not) is learning to set idols aside. At times a teacher has to break the tablets and create new ones.
On an immediate level, this might take the form of a teacher changing the lesson plan when it’s clear that the students don’t understand or aren’t paying attention. But it’s possible to see this as a single and permanent event.
A teacher comes with a sense of the subject (and often a love for the subject). She has something she wants the students to see, grasp, and make their own. She knows they won’t get it right away, and she wants them to persevere until they get it.
The students are not always open to this. Either they want nothing to do with it, or they make partial attempts toward limited goals (such as a good grade). Some learn to fake their way through; some distract themselves during class and at home. Sometimes this reaches a pitch where those who don’t take class seriously dominate the lesson. They have essentially erected their idol.
The teacher then realizes that something has to crack. Breaking the tablets here would mean: recognizing that this is going in the wrong direction, stopping right there, and starting over with something more basic, so that the students can build up to the subject. It doesn’t mean making the subject “relevant” or eliminating its challenges and strangeness; it does mean rewriting the tablets so that they actually reach the students. (This may relate to the distinction Michael Lopez made in his excellent recent post.)
But isn’t it wrong for a teacher to get angry at the students? It depends on the kind of anger. There is a warm kind that wakes the students up, helps them see the situation, and points toward the good. Sometimes a teacher must say, “this has gotten out of hand.” Even in college and graduate school, professors do this; the students may be distracted not with chatter, but with this or that intellectual fad or bad habit. I remember a professor raging over the ubiquitous misuse of the verb “subvert.” That’s almost a case in point.
I say “almost” because the individual instances don’t really do this justice. Many teachers have a turning point in their practice. It may recur, in different contexts, but they will always draw on that first experience. It’s where they realize that they aren’t reaching the students (or many of them) and that they must reach them. They break not only the lesson, but their conception of what they are doing, and start with something else.
Now, that new approach may be incomplete. (Maybe it’s inevitably so.) It’s a common error for an educator to “see the light” and then think that his or her new method is all that’s needed. It isn’t. What matters here is the gesture of breaking through to the students. In one sense, this gesture happens over and over; in another, it happens only once.
This is where the likeness breaks down. One can’t compare a teacher’s “new covenant” with the new tablets that Moses inscribes. There’s a gulf between the two, whether or not one regards Exodus as sacred text. Still, there’s something to the analogy, for all its imperfections.
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.”
Interactive screen time can be educational for toddlers, writes Lisa Guernsey in Slate. But . . .
Seventy-two percent of iTunes’ top-selling “education” apps are designed for preschoolers and elementary school children, according to a recent report. Yet we don’t have much research on interactive apps for preschoolers.
A 2010 Georgetown study found children 30 to 36 months old were better at remembering where puppets were hiding if they had to touch a space bar to spot the puppets (or saw a live puppet show), compared to toddlers who watched a video of the puppet show.
In earlier studies, slightly younger children—24 months—struggled with these “seek and find” tasks after watching non-interactive video, unless they had a guide on-screen, a person or character, whom they felt compelled to respond to or communicate with. Even easier tasks, such as pointing to an object introduced a few minutes before, are more difficult for very young children after watching video compared with being taught face-to-face. It is this “video deficit,” which has cropped up in numerous other studies with infants and toddlers, that partially informed the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation against screen time among children younger than 2. (The AAP has other concerns, too, such as whether parents are replacing human-to-human connections with screen time.)
The pediatricians were focused on “passive” media, such as TV and videos, not interactive media, Guernsey notes.
Still, interactive may be more distracting than educational, Guernsey warns.
. . . the wow factor of the device and the presence of interactive “hotspots” on e-book pages may interfere with children’s ability to recall the story line of the book. This isn’t just a problem of electronics. Even traditional print-and-cardboard pop-up books can lead children at 2½ and 3 years old to learn less from the story than they would have otherwise, according to research at the University of Virginia conducted by Cynthia Chiong.
Most education apps now on the market dictate how children will play, Guernsey writes. Instead of exploring, kids must follow the program. However, new products are being introduced that encourage creativity, such as “DoodleCast, ItzaBitza and in-development computer programming software for preschoolers called Scratch Jr.”
This is off-topic, but fun:
Young people today are wired for distraction, concludes a New York Times story.
Vishal Singh, a 17-year-old student at Woodside High in Silicon Valley, gets through only 43 pages of his summer reading because he’s busy surfing Facebook and YouTube and making digital videos. On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”
Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.
Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.
“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”
Trying to fight wired with wired, Principal David Reilly “has asked teachers to build Web sites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia center.”
Instead of skaters, jocks and band geeks, students split into texters and gamers, “Facebook addict and YouTube potato,” write the Times.
Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying.
. . . But this proficiency comes at a cost: she blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report.
“I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”
Shy students escape into the world of video games.
Ramon Ochoa-Lopez, 14, an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school.
“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”
Yes, it’s the same Woodside High as in Waiting for Superman.
When is a silent protest too “distracting” for school? asks Greg at Rhymes With Right.
At the ironically named Liberty High in Virginia, administrators told students they couldn’t tape their mouths shut to protest abortion because it was a distraction.
In Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court said students had a First Amendment right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Greg asks:
Now tell me, how does tape over the mouth in any way rise to the standard set in this case — “substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others” — in light of the fact that the tape would be in no way more disruptive than the black armbands in Tinker?
This seems like a fairly clear violation of Tinker. It’s not uncommon for student protesters to tape their mouths. On the annual Day of Silence to protest harassment of gays, students often duct-tape their mouths.