Preparing Kids to Succeed in Our Past: A Misguided Discussion About Attention-Spans and Learning? Reply


All thinking is an act of comparison.

Claims About Distracted Learners

The recent NYT article titled Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction reveals this clearly.  Consider the following quote.

"Teachers at Woodside commonly blame technology for students’ struggles to concentrate, but they are divided over whether embracing computers is the right solution.

“It’s a catastrophe,” said Alan Eaton, a charismatic Latin teacher. He says that technology has led to a “balkanization of their focus and duration of stamina,” and that schools make the problem worse when they adopt the technology.

“When rock ’n’ roll came about, we didn’t start using it in classrooms like we’re doing with technology,” he says. He personally feels the sting, since his advanced classes have one-third as many students as they had a decade ago."

A tension exists between technology and how we, as adults, remember our past and how we learned.  Is technology bring undesirable change, in the form of attention deficit, and should we embrace technology (or not) as part of the solution to this learning and societal problem? 

Counterpoint to the Distracted-Learner Perspective

This NYT article has received much attention, but for me the most striking response comes from a Duke University professor who published Why Doesn't Anyone Pay Attention Anymore over at the HASTAC site.  Prof. Cathy Davidson argues there is a mismatch between the way students are being taught and the way they are currently socialized. 

"Do kids pay attention differently now? No. Because they didn't learn any other way of paying attention. Do they pay attention differently than their parents did? Probably. And their parents paid attention differently than theirs.  The brain is always changed by what it does.  That's how we learn, from infancy on, and that's how a baby born in New York has different cultural patterns of behavior, language, gesture, interaction, socialization, and attention than a baby born the same day in Beijing. That's as true for the historical moment into which we are born as it is for the geographical location.  Our attention is shaped by all we do, and reshaped by all we do.  That is what learning is.  The best we can do as educators is find ways to improve our institutions of learning to help our kids be prepared for their future–not for our past. 

Virtually all of our current institutions of learning have evolved to prepare youth for an industrial age model of work, the assembly line or the office cubicle: sit still, don't move, come on time, do this subject then that one in order to pass this end-of-grade item-response test.  Who wouldn't find video games more stimulating than a typical school day–and more relevant to the challenges and obstacles ahead?  The problem is not in the students. It is in the mismatch between the way they are being taught and what they need to learn."

Why Points of Comparison Matter

I believe the lesson–or more accurately, the critical question–is not about what is happening with students today.  This perspective smacks of condescension as we look down on kids who live a different lifestyle than we did 20 or 30 years ago.  Instead, we should be asking what are the most useful vantage points from which to be viewing the contemporary learner so that, as Prof. Davidson argues, we better match instruction with how learners today actually find their way through this world.  The discussion as it is happening more generally, and as represented in the NYT, "is not really a discussion about the biology of attention; it is about the sociology of change."

Nothing New, In a Sense

Yet another NYT article titled The Attention-Span Myth points out that, from a literary perspective, we have often thought of distraction as a good thing.  Virginia Heffernan writes:

"In “Moby-Dick,” Starbuck tries to distract Ahab from his monomania with evocations of family life in Nantucket. Under the spell of “a cruel, remorseless emperor” — his own single-mindedness — Ahab stays his fatal course. Ahab’s doom comes from his undistractibility.

At the bottom of the article I found a fabulous quote.  "Back in 1798, Sir Alexander Crichton noted many students “to whom the dryness and difficulties of the Latin and Greek grammars are so disgusting that neither the terrors of the rod, nor the indulgence of kind intreaty can cause them to give their attention to them.

A Path Forward

Are we as parents, teachers, and leaders prepared to take a more selfless step and stop comparing students today to some romantic vision of our past?  Seriously.  How many of you truly enjoyed Algebra II?  Was it so interesting that you stayed up late reading the textbook?  Were you truly disappointed when you had to sleep, forcing you to put down your library copy of Crime and Punishment

At a minimum, it seems clear that the larger conversation will make difficult any move to rethink our point of comparison.  When it comes to the sociology of change, looking in the mirror for an honest answer is often the most difficult–yet most important–first step.

A hat tip to @RichardGatarski for the Hastac link.

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