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Educational Dangers of Shrinking Attention Spans

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Have you noticed you stop reading articles before coming to the end? Or that professional development books have fewer pages?  Has attention span been affected by Email and Twitter? Many notice these changes in their own behavior and the behavior of the learners in their classrooms. This attention reduction changes the way information is obtained and will ultimately affect the manner in which teaching and learning takes place. 

We have already heard about the addictive effects of our smartphones. Recently 60 Minutes reran Anderson Cooper's segment entitled, "Hooked on Your Phone? The report revealed how easily we are distracted by a sound coming from our smartphones and the difficulty most have ignoring it. How often have you allowed your attention to wander during a meeting or at a conference and a check of the phone has become the norm?  We use the word "allowed" because we do, after all, have an ability to control our attention. Partial attention is devoted to most things.  Students who listen while texting split their attention between where they are physically and where their minds. The latest adaptation of short attention span teaching is found in the videos that now appear on Facebook and Twitter.  One thought, one idea, one instruction...no reading necessary.

The ability of the adults to remain 'present' both in their role as learners and their role in their relationship with those learners in their classrooms is challenged. The shrinking attention span of the students is influenced by the manner in which information is shared in the world outside of school. With buzzing in pockets and peer pressure to be constantly connected and available, the distraction from the moment is increasing.  The beep, even if it isn't yours, is like a magnet drawing you in to the world calling from the smartphone. Student engagement has long been of concern to educators. It is increasingly at risk.

We do not mean to disparage the competition the digital environment is presenting. Nor do we suggest succumbing to the shrinking attention span by yielding to shorter time on task for learners.  But, it is a moment to pause and consider how to proceed with how teaching and learning in this context. We can both recognize the power of the digital distraction and the value of personal, self fueled, dogged attention to a task.

It begins with adults analyzing one's own attention span, how it is changing and whether the same is happening in the students. A tension needs to be held between the shrinking capacity to focus and the need to strengthen an attention 'muscle'. We don't want focus lost if lessons are shortened and time on task decreased in the name of 'responding to the students' needs'. On the other hand, refusing to recognize this distractibility leaves us in a lose-lose situation.  What is at risk is focus and time on task, both key elements of student engagement.  Regardless of the interest and attention students bring to the door, it remains the responsibility of educators to capture and hold their attention. How can lessons develop over time to grab students and motivate them to learn? What are the considerations teachers and the leaders who supervise them making with regard to developing longer attention abilities of their students?  How, if one's own attention span is at risk, can the educators in charge of lesson planning and school activities themselves work to capture and maintain the attention of the students in their charge? 

Now is a very good time to take a system wide look at what students are being asked to do as learners. Ask how and where their variety of strengths and interests, distractions, and limits interfere with learning.  Ask what can we do to counter the societal influence that has even impacted how we do business in our personal lives and as professionals.  It is an important facet of how schools think about teaching and learning.  If we don't begin to address it now, what will be the length of time anyone can attend to a task?  Hopefully, schools will intervene so that the surgeons of the future don't need replacements in a surgery after a few minutes or pilots shorter flights. And, we don't want educators to shorten classes to 15 minutes because of their own inability to stay focused for longer than that. Watch yourself this week. What is the longest time you stay focused on a single input. What does that say about the faculty and the students?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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