04 April 2016

Kids, Concentration, Boredom, & Tech

Photograph: John Slater/Getty Images

Boredom is not a new problem, it is a condition that has to a greater or lesser extent been an aspect of human existence for eons. And yet it seems to me that a pervasive myth is developing, along the lines of assuming that boredom is the fault of computers, that students that use computers are students that cannot concentrate, articles like these are a case in point:

"Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say"


"Technology Creating a Generation of Distracted Students"

The general gist of the arguments could be summarised thus:

Teachers (from middle and high schools) say today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

"There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers..."

".. roughly 75 percent of 2,462 teachers surveyed said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. And they said such tools had made students more self-sufficient researchers.

... nearly 90 percent said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

... of the 685 teachers surveyed in the Common Sense project, 71 percent said they thought technology was hurting attention span “somewhat” or “a lot.”

That said, these same Teachers remained somewhat optimistic about digital impact, with 77% saying Internet search tools have had a “mostly positive” impact on their students’ work.

Arguments abound, although ones like this strike me as quite strange:

"This could be because search engines and Wikipedia have created an entire generation of students who are used to one-click results and easy-to-Google answers."

Wait. What?

You're saying that if you can get an answer to a question with one click, that is a bad thing? Sure, there will be times when you will have to do a lot more than one click, because you have not been able to get a satisfactory answer to the question. But... if I could get a good answer in one click, believe me I would. If anything, access to the treasure trove of information that is the Internet, makes it much easier to get a multiplicity of sources, rather than only one, much easier than I could with books - yes I said it.

If your students can get the answers to your questions with one click... You're asking the wrong kinds of questions, boring questions. Maybe try asking questions that they can't just google, or that are difficult to google?

So. To the hordes of disgruntled teachers who are so quick to blame technology for short attention spans, I have this to say.

Get better. Get creative.

If your kids are bored, that is because, you are boring them, you are allowing them to be bored. Face it, move on, build a bridge, get over it, and use this as impetus to improve. As Dylan Wiliam says, "teaching is the hardest profession because you can always get better at it; and, "A complaint is a gift" (Although it won't feel like that at the time)."

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."

(Widely attributed to Dorothy Parker)

"by removing lecture from class time, we can make classrooms more engaging and human." 

"Why Long Lectures Are Ineffective" Salman Khan

It is unfair to blame technology for short attention spans… We (the human race, not just kids) have had short attention spans for many years, it's just that students are now less inclined to put up with it. Certainly the Time magazine article cites research from 1976, well before the advent of digital technology as we know it - I was a (bored) 6 year old.

I know this may come as a huge shock to anyone who knows me, but I have always had a short attention span; and that predated computers by at least a decade... I am not the only one. Chances are many of them are in your class (and are also your students' parents).

In 1996, in a journal called the National Teaching & Learning Forum, two professors from Indiana University — Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish — described how research on human attention and retention speaks against the value of long lectures. They cited a 1976 study that detailed the ebbs and flows of students’ focus during a typical class period. Breaking the session down minute-by-minute, the study’s authors determined that students needed a three- to five-minute period of settling down, which would be followed by 10 to 18 minutes of optimal focus. Then—no matter how good the teacher or how compelling the subject matter—there would come a lapse. In the vernacular, the students would “lose it.” Attention would eventually return, but in ever briefer pockets, falling “to three- or four-minute [spurts] towards the end of a standard lecture,” according to the report.

Just in case you didn't catch that. Let me just make that a little clearer:

10 to 18 minutes of optimal focus.

That's it.

So, what we need to do is instead of complaining, get creative.

via technorati

Maybe, just maybe, boredom is nature's way of telling you that you need to change.