Friday, November 2, 2012

You Do Not Have My Full Attention

This morning, I read yet another piece about the commonly held believe that 'young people are more distracted by technology'.

"...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 being released on Thursday.
The researchers note that their findings represent the subjective views of teachers and should not be seen as definitive proof that widespread use of computers, phones and video games affects students’ capability to focus.
Even so, the researchers who performed the studies, as well as scholars who study technology’s impact on behavior and the brain, say the studies are significant because of the vantage points of teachers, who spend hours a day observing students...."
This article was nested in another article asking for students to comment on whether they were distracted by technology.

This dialogue reminds me of a scene from The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg is asked by a lawyer whether or not the lawyer "has the attention" of the Facebook mogul:

I don't find this question of whether people are more distracted by technology to be very difficult.  THEY ARE MORE DISTRACTED.  But more specifically, we are all more likely to be distracted by things that are changing, dynamic, or more interesting and engaging than what we are currently doing.

At the most basic level, as a former PE teacher, when I was addressing my class in the gym to show them a new skill, I made sure that I stood against a solid wall and the class faced me while I was speaking.  This was instead of them sitting against the wall and looking  right past me at the other PE classes that were in the weight room or on the mezzanine.  It is natural to be distracted!

We need to stop judging 'young people' and their being distracted, having short attention spans, or whatever other denigrating phraseology we can come up with about them being less engaged in classrooms across North America.

Why?  I am an educator, and I love to learn.  Like most of us, I read hundreds of articles and blogs every month, go to dozens of PD sessions, and gaggles of meetings and presentations--an education geek to say the least.  However, you do not have my (nor many of my colleagues, I would guess) full attention at a meeting or presentation if:
  • you are minimally prepared (and we can tell)
  • you are reading from a Powerpoint
  • you are giving me information that I could have read in an email or a memo
  • you are lecturing for more than 3-5 minutes at a time
  • you are not maximizing the number of interactions that I can have in the room, either with you, my peers, the material that we are working with
If you aren't doing some, many or all of these things (depending on the context) I have a great smartphone, and I am going to be checking my email, looking at my Google Reader, having a peek at a chat on Twitter, looking at my calendar to see what else I have on the go, checking the weather....on and on and on.  And I am an education geek who wants to learn from you.

So my question is, why would we EXPECT the full attention of our students?  To that end, as a Principal, if I have the most boring and least engaging staff meeting prepared for my teachers (and we are working hard NOT to do this), why would I expect the full attention of my staff?  And it doesn't matter about technology.  Before, it was doodling, passing notes, daydreaming.  Now we (and by 'we', I include adults and students) just have a different distractor.

But regardless of my great smartphone, if you
  • are over-prepared (and we can tell)
  • have a Powerpoint with pictures and videos and interesting dialogue
  • are giving me information that I need to have
  • are lecturing for more than 3-5 minutes at a time but have different bits of multimedia (sights, sounds, pictures, things to touch and manipulate) that stimulate a number of my senses
  • you are maximizing the number of interactions that I can have in the room, either with you, my peers, or the material that we are working with through things such as literacy strategies like Bank On It, Socratic Circles, GOSSIP, and others 
I am engaged.  My phone is in my pocket.  And if you are into it, and using interactive technologies that allow me to contribute (like a Google Doc), vote or give feedback (like Polleverywhere, or Socrative), or find songs or take pictures to tell a story....well, I am SO in, and my phone is now a tool for learning.  And kids will be in as well.  They won't seem 'more distracted', and it will be because of what WE do or don't do, not because of their access to technology.

Collectively, we have an obligation to engage those that we are teaching or working with.  To simply blame technology for students being 'more distracted' is both limp and counterproductive.  And by adopting this mindset, we will never succeed in getting the 'full attention' of anyone.


  1. Great article! So true! Thanks for sharing.

  2. awesome... across BC we should be putting up your first list on the wall during staff meetings and play bingo with it... first person to make note of all five attention-killers gets to jump up and yell BINGO and run out of the staff meeting laughing hysterically

  3. Thanks! I am going to keep this in mind as I head into my first teaching practicum. Time to revisit my lesson plans.

  4. Well said. I am one of those teachers who complains (and blogs) about students' digital distraction; however, I fully agree with your point. When facing any crowd/group, it is the responsibility of the speaker/facilitator to hold their attention. I seek to make the learning experience for my students as interesting and compelling as possible. That doesn't nullify the need for rules in the classroom regarding digital devices, but your point is well taken. Thank you!

    1. It IS frustrating, you are right! And not just localized to young people. I guess I believe that the more we have the metacognitive needs at the forefront of our thoughts when we are planning our lessons and presentations, we are more likely to engage those participants in what we are doing. It will not be 100% of the time, or at least very rarely, but when we do make the effort to capture the interest of those with 'digital distractions' (a group in which I should be included), we decrease the number of participants that 'tune out'.

    2. Cale, I agree with you that the problem of digital distraction is not limited to young people. No doubt. However, keep in mind that "older" people are more practiced in the art of what I call "single tasking." We have known a time in our lives when we were completely unplugged; we experienced boredom without a media source to mask over it, and most of us were more connected to nature. Even though most of us are now susceptible to digital distraction, we can draw on our already developed ability to single task. My concern is that young people -- especially those born in the last ten years -- are at risk of losing this ability.

  5. Attention = currency. For example, I read this post to the very end, and some parts twice. Can't say that too often!

  6. You win the Internet.

    Great post!

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  8. This is a fantastic reflection and excellent strategies - I am going to post your suggestions by my desk to make sure I incorporate them everyday! I also really appreciated the links to the Bank On It and Gossip strategies - any other good ones like that to increase student participation and engagement? I love them and have never seen them before!!!! Thanks so much!

    1. Those strategies came directly from our Literacy Coordinator in the District, and I will do my best to find even more. Thanks for your note.

  9. Like everything, there should be a balance. Yes, teachers should be expected to engage their students, but it is not always about entertaining. I worry that you, too, have oversimplified the problem. Kids today have shorter attention spans. The solution is not to encourage more short thinking, but instead to engage our students deeply, challenging them to spend some time on issues that are not always comfortable. By showing them the value of quiet and focus, we guarantee our world better critical thinkers.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I always find it interesting when people say "kids today shorter attention spans"--I am always curious where this data comes from. If this was/is in fact the case (which I am not sure that it is), I don't think we should localize this to kids. And furthermore, if we had the sort of data that indicates a 'shorter attention span', it is even more incumbent on us to find new and interesting ways to engage the learner. And when I say engage, I do not mean entertain. The few basic strategies outlined in my post are not particularly 'entertaining', but the commonality is that they minimize participants 'buying out' of an activity.

      In a time that begs for collaboration and communication, I am not sure that 'quiet and focus' guarantees critical thinking. I know for me, I glean much more about the level of critical thinking and focus from listening to the interactions between groups in some of the activities I described. Conversely, I can only hope and guess that someone who is quiet and focused is actually thinking critically about what we are discussing. In fact, I can only hope when a participant or student is quiet and focused that they are actually engaged at all.

      Thank you for the push back!

    2. I think kids today will find something more interesting on the web. They will find something to do. They will try to do what you have asked, or what their peers are discussing. But the net is powerful, you have said you get distracted. Why would we think, kids do not.

      You understand what you need to keep tuned in. How can we assume this is what will keep kids interested. That this how kids livetoday.

      We as the responder suggests need a balanced approach.

  10. Great post Cale! I hate the fact that people jump on headlines like the one from this report. If we portray students and their lack of attention as the issue, then we as educators do not have to take any responsibility for the low levels of engagement in our classrooms. You nailed it!

    1. Generational bashing never helps, and a presentation, lesson, sales pitch or lecture that doesn't engage participants young or old is not the fault of the participant. Thanks for your comment, Patrick!

  11. Useful advise for administrators and teachers alike!
    Good job!
    p.s. Engagement is active; entertainment is not.

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