07. Learning

Is There an Epidemic of Inattention in Schools?

March 4, 2019

Teachers and parents alike are worried about a rising problem in the classroom – inattention. In our increasingly digital world, education is at risk of being drowned out by a constant stream of electronic information in children’s interconnected lives.

Similar to a concept we covered in a recent blog on employee wellness, technology appears to be both part of the problem and part of the solution. So here we will look at how this seemingly contradictive idea is playing a central role in changing 21st century education.

Technology Infused Lifestyles

Most children in high-school education have never known a world without internet. With the dramatic reduction in the costs of powerful mobile computing devices, alongside ubiquitous connectivity, children are being led down a path where algorithms keep them clicking, scrolling and swiping, from dusk till dawn.

According to the latest research, 95% of teens have access to smartphones. While this brings many advantages, studies show that most teens actually fret that they spend too much time on their phones, yet they feel anxious or upset whenever they are cut off from their devices. Clearly, the information age is presenting young people with developmental challenges that adults never faced.

Attention - the First Causality on the Digital Battlefield

Though the notion of actual technology addiction is still very much a matter of debate, it’s impact on attention in real-world performance is becoming a greater and greater concern. In fact, some research suggests that levels of attention in youths is actually shortening, year on year.

Dr Jim Taylor, author of Raising Generation Tech, explained why the influence of technology can have pivotal consequences over a child’s intellectual development.

“There is a growing body of evidence…that technology, social media, immediate access to the internet and smartphones are hurting kids’ ability to focus. We are fundamentally changing the way kids think and the way their brains develop.”

The key worry is that students are becoming so accustomed to constant stimuli from smartphone apps and digital media, that their attentional bandwidth is saturated when it comes to learning in the classroom. And without attention, learning is an inevitable casualty.

The Importance of Attention in Learning

Neurodevelopmental scientist Domenico Tullo, of the Perceptual-Neuroscience Laboratory at McGill University, explained that attention is a critical intellectual capacity in the classroom. It is essential for students to be able selectively focus and on relevant information, shut out distractions, concentrate on multiple things at once, and to sustain these thought processes for extended periods of time.

Dr. Taylor also believes that without the ability to pay attention to something, students can’t effectively process information. This means that new knowledge does not properly consolidate into memory, which has the consequences of children not be able to interpret, analyze, evaluate information – the bedrock of learning processes.

In this light, attention in the classroom isn’t just a value in itself, but works as the gateway to higher forms of learning, leading to deeper comprehension and independent forms of thinking.

The Challenge for Teachers

A common challenge that teachers are now facing, is very short student attention spans. Teachers typically report that, when talking to the class, they can’t maintain the focus of their students more than 30 seconds at a time.  As a result, many teachers are simply hacking lessons into smaller chunks, which risks losing the opportunity to develop deeper comprehension skills.

Another primary issue, is that children find it more and more exhausting to read complex or long text without regular breaks. It’s thought that a key factor in this problem is the migration from text-based media, to image-heavy digital apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat.

In a similar vein, the power of search engines like Google, present an under-recognized issue of poor memory development. This is because curiosity, combined with effort to try and work out answers or problems, is a crucial aspect of memory formation. The almost instant capability to pull answers seemingly out of thin air, is bypassing our flexing of these key mental muscles – a process called cognitive off-loading.

Lastly, change is happening too fast to keep up. Teachers were basically never trained to deal with education in a digital world – most gained their professional qualifications amidst thick textbooks and chalkboards. Creating new teacher training programs would likely take years, and with the relentless pace that technology is evolving, they may even become obsolete by the time teachers can put them into practice.

Drawing the Line on Technology

With traditional teaching methods ill-equipped to thrive in the digital world, educators are forming their own strategies to adapt to the challenges. In a bid to defend education against the perils of technology, many have adopted the stricter approach of banning mobile devices in schools, which in some case studies have resulted in improved grades.

Of course this doesn’t help with children being glued to digital devices outside of school, which is why schemes like Apple’s Screen Time – that limit digital media access to only certain times of the day - are being seen as a tag-team tactic between teachers and parents.

Some teachers even begin their classes with mindfulness exercises, in an effort to refocus attention lost outside the classroom. Another strategy is to have students stick to taking notes and writing essays by hand. Versus writing on computers, research shows that pen and paper is more effective when it comes to information retention.

Other initiatives include resisting investing in tech over teachers, and trying to maximize students’ face-to-face interaction with their teachers, which is still considered the most important component in the classroom.

Embracing Technology

In direct contrast to this approach of defending education against technology, there is a rising movement to embrace digital platforms to drive student engagement. At a simpler level, this includes teachers recording small lectures on YouTube to be watched by students from home, then expanded on in the classroom.

More tech-savvy approaches involve specialized learning platforms like Flipgrid, which allows students to share videos of their own recorded presentations. Or, reading platforms like Lexia, which use gamification to motivate kids to reach each next new chapter.

A key advantage to this style of education, is that access to technology plays a big part in closing the gap for students in low-income families. It also fits with the idea that when students graduate to real-world jobs, they will be better equipped for the transition to jobs in the information economy, which very likely, will also be digitally based.

How Should Education Evolve for Digital-Native Students?

Amid all the challenges and solutions, a new concept called Blended Learning is coming to the foreground. Essentially this involves controlling the negative aspects of technology, while leveraging the advantages of it. However, in terms of working out what an effective recipe will look like, there is undoubtedly still a long way to go.

Educational strategist and recent winner of BAIE Trailblazer Award, Dwayne Matthews stated ‘‘That no matter what, we need to empower students to succeed in a world constantly trying to distract them.’’

He believes that because information loads are growing exponentially, consuming more and more attention, students need to actively train their selective attention and sustained attention to gain an educational performance advantage. This will become ever more critical as we move further into the 21st century.

If you’re interested in reading more on the challenges and advantages of technologies, then check out these related blogs.

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