Do Schools Need to Teach Kids How to Grow Their Attention Spans?

A British education official (and others) think yes.
(Photo: Matthias Tunger/Getty Images)
Feb 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

It's not like we expect the attention span of kids to be particularly long. In school they're exposed to new ideas, worrying about tests, wondering about their crush, thinking about lunch, and all of it probably at the same time. But add to this a smartphone and all the social media that can be accessed therein, and the problem of distractibility seems to have reached the tipping point. This week Britain’s shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt suggested that schools there should explicitly teach attentiveness and concentration skills to counteract the influence of apps like Facebook and Instagram.

The teaching of resilience and self-control and character is more and more important to develop, not only in terms of academic attainment but also in terms of the outcomes you need to improve your life chances, employability and all the rest of it," Hunt told the Telegraph ahead of a larger education plan debuting Wednesday.

Numerous studies give credence to Hunt's concern. One Pew Research Center poll that surveyed 2,500 teachers found 87 percent of them felt modern technologies created an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” A 2012 study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, reported that 71 percent of 685 older and younger teachers surveyed said they thought technology—TV shows, video games, texting, and social networking—was hurting attention span “somewhat” or “a lot.” Sixty percent said it stalled students’ ability to write and communicate face-to-face.

“Today's teens are a generation raised under the specter of our culture literally celebrating the concept of multitasking,” says Dr. John McGrail, a Los Angeles therapist who works with kids with attention deficits. “They, like we all, are inundated with information almost 24/7 and from seemingly innumerable sources. Thus, it’s not surprising that they are prone to have attention study habit issues, especially considering most teens aren’t necessarily thrilled with the subject matter in school to begin with.” McGrail believes there is often a direct correlation between attention deficit disorder and a simple lack of interest.

Terry Weeks, an education professor at Middle Tennessee State University, concurs: “Our emphasis is on teaching our students how to package the content that they will teach in a creative and meaningful way so that their students will want to tune in. Students are always focused on something, even if the focus is on a distracting object or thought. To me, the issue is not to get them to place their attention somewhere. They can do that. The real issue for teachers is getting them to focus on our agenda instead of a different agenda.”

Weeks said that on the first day of class, he shows students video clips of the 1960s Batman TV show, followed by a clip from the latest Batman movie. Then he asks why the “packaging” of Batman has changed.

“Right away they point out that the audience has changed—that today's audience is more sophisticated and is exposed to more technology,” he says. “They explain that movie producers have to adapt to a changing world and keep pace if they expect to attract an audience.”

While teachers may have to do the same, some are addressing shrinking attention spans as an independent issue, often citing Dan Goleman's book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence as a good resource. But technology is here to stay, and educators who think of it as the enemy are in for a frustrating ride.

“Technology is a tool,” Weeks says. “Whether that tool is a problem or a benefit depends on how the tool is used. A person can take a screwdriver and cause harm to someone, or a person can use it to tighten something that would prevent harm from occurring later. A teacher can complain about how difficult it is to compete with technology, or he or she can use it to his or her advantage.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.