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How has Technology Impacted the Attention Span of Students

For a generation that has not ever lived without the internet, are the ultimate consumers of technology. Hence, for schools which are a microcosm of such technological and cultural landscapes, how is learning impacted by this? Pandemic learning for two years provided an interesting insight in evaluating how far technology can actually embed with teaching and learning.

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Attention can be the highest compliment you can pay to someone. For a human brain, that is made up of so much complexity, it is not hard to believe that attention and focus are essential requirements of a successful human experience. Attention is a continued focus on detail for a particular period of time. Children are born with shorter attention spans, however, as they grow up it changes drastically. It is how biology intended it for our survival. Our attention spans become longer because we want to willingly be a part of various societal systems that can help us in solving more challenging problems in life- from our jobs, career choices, health & wellbeing, and interpersonal relationships.

Infiltration of Technology has become a part of our Culture of Learning:

If we look at the recent change that has happened in the way we learn, we meander and wonder if decades ago what we did in our classrooms was at times an exercise in mundanity. However maybe what may seem mundane could rather be a product of sustained attention. When we think about the technology boom that has happened in the recent decades, we get to see that unsustained attention can be very antithetical to learning.

Mass amount of tech products ranging from Apps, to all kinds of information online that we consume is an expression of our changing cultural and educational landscape. It is a threshold that we have admirably crossed and shall never go back to the same ‘old ways’. It is also an ongoing revolution as we become increasingly dependent on Apps for our various needs that are to be catered now and then. At times we do find ourselves asking, if our learners want to be constantly engaged? Or do we draw a boundary somewhere?

For a generation that has not ever lived without the internet, are the ultimate consumers of technology. Hence, for schools which are a microcosm of such technological and cultural landscapes, how is learning impacted by this? Pandemic learning for two years provided an interesting insight in evaluating how far technology can actually embed with teaching and learning.

I am a big advocate of integration of tech in the field of education. But I also think that when learning becomes tech-led, it can lead to the creation of ‘one-dimensional learning silos.’ This is my perception as a teacher, because for learning to happen, one must fully and emotively communicate with the process of learning, which I believe can become stronger if the context is multi-dimensional. For example- contrary to what one may believe, we educators know that a lived experience where a student gets to explore, feel, think and reflect in a physical space is more powerful than a VR (virtual reality) museum. A visit to the museum here can create an impact of an immersive reality which houses artifacts from various timelines, and places and leaves room for exciting questions.

I have seen that students increasingly rely on search engines and are able to find information that is needed. It happens too fast, maybe in milliseconds, and they intrinsically reward themselves for accessing the information within that time. Accessing information is not the creation of knowledge. As per Bloom’s taxonomy, a learner moves from knowing & understanding, to applying and ultimately creating a product. To move to this metacognitive state, where new knowledge is created, sustained attention is necessary.

The accessibility to answers also does not always nurture curiosity, however, the process of finding answers is the most exciting part of learning. It leads to a natural inquiry, hones curiosity and develops that childlike wonderment that we all need!

According to a research conducted by a  Pew report, 87 percent teachers in USA agree with the assertion that “today’s digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.’’ Hence, one cannot refute that technological boom has been to some extent disadvantageous to us. On one hand, it has made us increasingly aware of a million things, yet on the other hand, it has inundated us with information that was beyond our wildest dreams. A child can simply research the biggest star in the universe within a span of 15 seconds! I remember that when NASA sent Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars, I wrote a congratulatory letter to NASA. 2 months later, I received a reply with pictures from NASA and a recommendation of  three websites that I can visit to find out more about the mission. The snail mail helped me cherish the information that I had received and celebrate my achievements as a convincing inquirer!

From the perspective of an educator, how did changed attention spans impact our day to day understanding of delivery of curriculum and pedagogy in the classes?

Truth about attention spans:

According to a Penn State research, excessive screen time has been associated with a variety of concerns for children, such as obesity, mood swings, aggressive behavior, and has been found to negatively impact attention span, language and cognitive development.

This is just not highly concerning, but also makes us educators, understand the task in front of us. We ourselves need to develop a nuanced understanding of how we want our students to learn and how much screen time is too much screen time. Every time we set out a digital homework, we are giving them added screen minutes. A pitfall of accessibility caused by COVID-19 is the fact that physical space was restricted and suddenly this gap was filled with online resources. To continually reflect upon learning and what we did well before COVID-19 is one way to move forward.

Each day on average a teenager spends around 4-6 hours being on the internet that comes with a hefty cost. This can of course vary from preschoolers and from country to country. However most teenages in middle and high income countries will spend a significant amount of time online. Overzealous interpretation, hasty generalizations and to track actual learning can be a challenge of our times. Engagement can derive perception of learning at times, and that is not always an indicator of learning.

What can educators do to make sure that the attention spans improve in students?

Currently, the challenge in front of the educators is massive. How do we make sure that our students learn, innovate and show passion towards learning that they find meaningful? Will it be a good time to reflect on what worked well all these decades and how we can work to increase the attention spans of students?

Here are some suggestions:

Clear routines should be set out in a Classroom:

You can have a ‘No laptops’ or set-up ‘laptop for only research’ policy in the class. Each child must have the self-awareness of tracking the amount of hours they use the laptops for. A tracker on the class-board is a great tool for self-reflection. Rather than directly asking them to reduce screen time and avoid being on laptops, unnecessarily, make them aware of the consequences. Ask them to categorize reasons for being online and later teach them to prioritize the requirements and needs to be online.

Physical Learning space should be regularly organized:

Our efficiency increases when we are working in an uncluttered space. Students must be asked to maintain the space where they sit and effectively organize the resources, especially, books, charts, or any other writing material that is to be used. A well used classroom space is optimum for learning. Teachers can organize seating plans in a ‘crew’ set-up or at times individual spaces with a desk and chair can be allocated. This space should indicate that we value a culture of sustained attention. Every item in this space should be intentionally kept. They already exist in such an online clutter, hence, make their physical space as organized as it can be. The more they connect with the physical world, the more they will enjoy being in it and this will fuel their attention span.

Assign seemingly boring tasks:  

Learning should be visible as much as it can be. We also need to remember that engagement is not always learning, in fact it might be a very poor proxy for learning. We should have a balanced approach and make sure that our learners are able to complete the tasks. I don’t mean that engaging is necessarily bad, but it can be at times an overcompensation for actual teaching. Set-out tasks that build resilience. For example- many students struggle with a complex math task, or they do not like to write long essays. Both tasks, I believe, are mentally rewarding, and should be enjoyed by the students. Each step should be scaffolded and teachers must develop the patience themselves if we are to expect results. Provide closure to tasks wherever you can.

Meditation sessions in class:

Over the years, we educators have started a mindfulness conversation in our classes which is delightful. We want our students to learn to be calm after being in spaces that were overly stimulating. Meditation has become more important in today’s context when young students are continuously on the internet. For example- a few minutes after the lunch break would be a great way to start that can later have a longer duration.

Quality over quantity: 

There is a beautiful story of Austin’s Butterfly where a first grade student was supposed to draw a very beautiful tiger swallowtail butterfly. Of course the first draft was an unremarkable copy of the intended picture. But over a period of time, his teacher and peers challenge him to be better. He eventually comes up with a second draft, third draft and so on for each part for his part of his butterfly. This ended up building reward resilient behavior and helped him achieve his target. Similarly students, especially Middle Schoolers, can work on their passion projects that excite them, they can showcase their learning to the outside world and no tasks are going to be mundane, but each one can be a strong learning experience.

To conclude, we are living in two worlds, both virtual and real, that are overwhelming to our learners. It will continue being that way because we can’t stop various types of content from the outside world coming into our classroom or into their lives. We cannot even fully moderate the exposure that our children will experience in school life or imagine all possible outcomes it can have. However, we can constantly teach them how to learn, to draw boundaries, to know joy, to become better learners and ultimately how to experience true learning. Experience stays for life, which is a true testament to the natural world paying attention to us.

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