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In the arms race for student attention, no side is winning

studentsIn the arms race for student attention, no side is winning

November 16, 2017

Attention is practically solid. It has a span. People request, hold, lose, and pay it. You can be its center.

In a very real sense, we pollute it. The more divided it is, the less it’s worth, but our demands on it are skyrocketing.

Man in suit with many hands, doing multiple tasks

Low-grade attention.

Attention, media multitasking, and ah hold on gotta send a text okay I’m back what was I talking about?

The chief pollutant is media multitasking, or MMT for short.

Think regular multitasking, except one or more of the tasks involves a media stream. Instagram, Netflix, Youtube, the Sunday paper — take your pick. If your attention is your back muscles, then MMT is bad posture.

The more of a media multitasker you are, the harder your brain needs to work to sustain your focus and filter out distractions.

It‘s ominous, then, that flip phones are making a comeback. Or that shirts saying “offline is the new black” and “unplug” are hitting the shelves.

If that stuff is cool and rebellious, what’s the status quo?

All quiet on the classroom front

Now imagine you’re a teacher. Too easy on phones in class? Students get distracted. Too strict? At best, they get restless; at worst, they get bitter. Either way, they’re likely to disengage, in which case learning stops.

Technology in schools — bear with me — is a little like bees. Bees can ruin your day, or they can make honey and help crops grow. It all depends on how you approach them and how you protect yourself.

How do our students and classrooms handle bees without getting stung?

Insect pollinating flower

Stay cool, little guy. We don’t want any trouble.

Three strategies

Technology isn’t going away any time soon. That said, we can’t let it monopolize our attention. Just google “Starcraft addiction.”

Let’s see some options.

Take attention to the gym

There is one technology so powerful, so ingenious, so mysterious, that I urge you to take deep breaths (count them, even) before I talk about it.

That’s right. It’s breath counting. In small doses, it starts to mask the bad neurological effects of media multitasking. In higher doses it can actually turn back the clock on said effects.

Animal in yoga pose

Ahead of the curve, those lemurs.

That’s not the only known attention intervention. Even video games, used wisely, can make us more more persistent problem-solvers and more efficient at orienting our attention. And the mere act of watching your own technology habtis helps us make those habits more responsible.

If there are fruits this low-hanging, what else might be out there?

Design class around attention

It’s no secret that focus, and especially the focus of teenagers, can wear out.

Salman Khan of Khan Academy wrote a brilliant article about this very subject. In short, the traditional lecture format is fighting a losing battle.

As class wears on, lapses in student attention happen more and more often. The urge to text rears its ugly head. FOMO sets in.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is just throw your audience a bone.

Dog relaxing

If breaks must happen, how does one spend them? That’s really up to you. There are a lot of tried-and-true time management tactics out there, and they’re pretty silent on the matter.

The point is this: let’s say your class in an hour. Unless your students are monks, you have a choice: 60 minutes of barely functional attention, or 45 minutes (give or take) of high quality attention. I’d take the latter any day.

Of course, the need for break time is hugely reduced if you…

Make schoolwork more engaging

There’s no law saying lessons can’t be interesting. Or funny. Or shocking. Or vivid. Or storylike. Or gamelike. Or relevant to students. Or motivating to students. Or directed (at least partly) by students.

This really deserves its own post (or blog). And it has plenty. The paragraph above was inspired by the ten tips at the end of this more research-heavy post on attention and engagement.

Giving students something to explore and enjoy, not just regurgitate, is easier said than done. Luckily, instructional designers and new technologies are constantly giving us new ways to do so.

Now go and use them without getting stung.


School hallway

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