Eye on the Prize
Students in my daughter’s graduate classes routinely ignored the reading assignments, much to her chagrin since it made class discussions halting and boring. But when the problem was brought to the attention of the department chair, his response was that students learn differently today, getting their information quickly from different sources. Most students today, he thought, are unprepared to sit and read text for an extended period of time. His advice to professors? Limit printed text assignments and direct students to several sources of information instead of just one. One wonders how students will learn to understand, let alone develop a cogent argument with logical steps supported by research, but at least classroom discussions would be more fluid if less informed.
Two recent surveys confirm that many teachers share the department chair’s opinion regarding students’ ability to focus for extended periods of time. The surveys show that teachers in general feel that students’ persistent use of digital technology has diminished their attention spans and lessened their abilities to persevere when faced with daunting tasks.
The researchers, from the Pew Research Center and from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advises parents regarding the use of technology by children, take pains to point out that their work is a survey of teacher opinions rather than definitive proof that technology affects the brain. In fact, the research reveals that 75% of teachers surveyed say that technology has a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. Still, nearly 90% of respondents say that technology also results in “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”
Of course, one always has to consider that anecdotal evidence is just that – anecdotal evidence. Still, one has to wonder about the long-term effect not only of digital technology on children, but of what I might call “primitive” technology found in toys and games for children under 2. If you’ve ever tried to buy a simple toy for very young children, you know what I mean. Try to find something that doesn’t blink, flash, play music, or talk. Toys that don’t do any of those things are called “classic,” like PF Flyers and hula hoops.
Some children’s development organizations worry that digital toys themselves take away the child’s ability to determine the nature of play. Instead of creating her own play situation, the child responds to what the toy does. What I’ve observed myself (more anecdotal evidence) is that small children become more interactive with toys when all the buttons are turned off or the batteries removed. It also prolongs the life of the toy by keeping it from being thrown out the window of a moving car by a crazed parent.
At any rate, technology is a large part of all children’s education today, and we need to figure out how best to integrate it into learning. I doubt if students’ attention spans have been shortened. Good teachers have always had to work a little to engage students’ intellect; prolonged focus is a function of maturity, self-discipline, and interest. In the meantime, check out the video below about what books do at night. High tech in praise of no tech.