Attention problem? Let’s blame classroom technology!

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I don’t know how I managed to miss this story, but did you all see the piece in the NY Times a few weeks ago, Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say?  If you didn’t, you should check it out.  The article describes some teacher survey results showing that teachers believe that “students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.”

This is the kind of “research” that makes me crazy, because these are absolutely not scientific findings.  These are surveys of teachers’ opinions.  And I think it’s fine for all of us to have opinions, of course, but one of the problems with these kinds of surveys is that there’s all kinds of room for subjective interpretation of what “attention” is.  But that’s all well and good…discussing the relative merit of surveys isn’t what I wanted to talk about today anyway.

What I do want to talk about is this notion that somehow using technology is actually changing students’ ability to pay attention and “persevere in the face of challenging tasks.”  Do we actually believe that?  That the use of technology is actually changing brain chemistry or structure or function and impacting the ability to pay attention?  Cognitive Scientist Dan Willingham doesn’t think so.   Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker doesn’t think so.  And neither do I.

I like to talk about “can’t do” behaviors and “won’t do” behaviors.  “Can’t do” behaviors are those that a student is actually incapable of doing…whether it is because of a skill deficit, a biological limitation, a physical restriction or the like.  “Won’t do” behaviors are those that a student can do, but doesn’t.  We all could name a million of these, probably.  You know your students are capable of being quiet, but often they’re not.  
You may know that a given student is capable of doing single-addition math, but he still doesn’t finish his homework.  You know, stuff like that.

A lot of people get confused about whether or not attention is a “can’t do” or a “won’t do.”  (In my opinion, this is directly related to the huge over-diagnosis of ADHD, though that isn’t to say that there aren’t real instances of ADHD out there).  One of my favorite stories about this is a time when I was in a classroom to observe a student.  Another student is the class was absolutely bouncing off the walls…the teacher told me that he hadn’t had his meds that morning.  I was in the room for about an hour when I suddenly realized that I didn’t hear any more disruption.  I assumed the student had left the room.  But when I turned around, there he was, at the computer with headphones on, quiet as a mouse, using a spelling program.  He stayed absolutely quiet and focused for another 20 minutes until the teacher interrupted him to go to lunch.

So what about that?  Is that kid who was bouncing off the walls “unable to pay attention” the same kid who later sat for more than 20 minutes focused on the computer?  He is, and he did not have his meds the whole day.  So what does this tell us about whether or not that child’s attention behavior is “can’t do” or “won’t do?”  It tells me that this child can pay attention….even for extended periods of time…but for whatever reason he won’t.  And that’s a behavior management problem.

There’s no question that the availability of technology is changing the way we teach and it’s changing kids’ expectations of how we will teach.  But I haven’t seen any scientific evidence that classroom technologies are fundamentally changing kids’ brains and corresponding abilities.  Before we get all crazy about blaming technology, let’s make sure that we are teaching kids how to pay attention and that we are setting up the appropriate contingencies in our classrooms that encourage kids to pay attention.  If we haven’t done our due diligence with that, blaming behavior problems on technology is a huge cop-out.

For some ideas of how to teach attention skills to kids, check these out:

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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5 Responses to Attention problem? Let’s blame classroom technology!

  1. Chris says:

    Thank you for pointing me to this. We’ve been talking about this very thing as a team of 8th grade teachers recently. I haven’t read the piece you linked to in the Times yet but wanted to leave a quick comment before I rush off to my next thing. This is very interesting to me, so I promise to come back to it to better inform myself soon.

    I might agree entirely with your “behavior management” hypothesis if you were able to use the same line of reasoning while talking about a person’s “ability” to run a marathon. In my world as a language arts teacher, reading long passages of text is still an important and valuable practice. I “believe” it is valuable to a student to have the stamina to sit for 30 minutes and focus on what they are reading (without bells and whistles or encouraging feedback). One aspect of my job is to increase their stamina for this. My professional opinion, based on my observations is that this “ability,” this stamina, is not there to the degree it needs to be.

    Yet, I can’t really say for certain that it is getting that much worse. I get frustrated because it’s not there and then it’s easy for me (a lot of teachers do this) to simply say that it’s getting worse and worse and then point the finger at something like technology. But without historical data . . . well, you know. I don’t trust my ability to quantify in a historical anecdotal way like that. We can speculate about technology and video games and television, or teaching practice or single parent homes.

    I also understand a scientists frustration and dismissal of teachers’ observations–though such dismissals frustrate me. As a professional, being on the front lines every day and being continually ignored or dismissed and not taken seriously irritates me to no end. And it contributes to the high turnover in this profession. Okay enough of that rant. Couldn’t help it. We’re getting our teeth kicked in constantly and from all angles here.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Chris- Thanks for commenting! Excited to talk to you about this.

      I’m not sure that we disagree, based on what I understood you to say. Let’s see…

      Like any other behavior, I think that the running a marathon example has to be unpacked. Is someone capable of running a marathon? I’m certainly not, I don’t have the physical capacity to just go out tomorrow and do it. So right now, for me, it’s a “can’t do.” My husband, however, who does run marathons is capable of it. So if he’s not running a marathon today it’s not because he can’t, it’s because of something else….work, no marathon available today, etc. etc.

      In the case of the reading long passages, I need to understand, I think, what you mean. When you say that students’ “stamina is not there to the degree that it needs to be,” do you mean inherently? I think I’m confused because in the previous sentence you said that part of your job is to increase that stamina. I don’t dispute at all whether or not reading long passages is a valuable practice.

      I think my issue is not that teachers’ observations are worthless. My issue is that we need to take those opinions and observations and try to validate them scientifically so that we can quantify whatever is going on and make a plan for how to address it. Otherwise it feels like we’re just chasing the flavor of the month, doesn’t it?

  2. I’m not a scientist and I certainly know that my personal experience is not evidence in any scientific manner. But I do personally disagree with the premise that screen time is not a very serious problem for many desirable behaviors among children.
    I find it interesting that your primary supporting example showed a child acting inappropriately until such time as he had a screen in front of him. As the director of a music school I observe this kind of behavior all the time: A child with a hand-held video game of some sort (or iphone or iPad or other electronic device) completely absorbed and focused, but then unable to function appropriately in a more dynamic and complex social or educational environment.
    As a parent I have observed that if my daughter watches more than 1/2 hour of t.v. she is significantly less willing to engage in creative tasks such as solving a puzzle or practicing a musical instrument or even going for a walk (things she otherwise generally enjoys). (I actually observe this about myself as well 🙂
    I would not suggest that this proves that screen time alters childrens’ brain chemistry, but my personal experience makes me wary of too much screen time.

    • karen mahon says:

      Hey Klondike, thanks for your comment. Your name was so interesting to me that I googled you…your music academy looks amazing!

      I didn’t mean to suggest that excessive screen time might not be a problem…in fact, I just saw this blog post today that might interest you: My point is only that there is not evidence to suggest that kids are INCAPABLE of paying attention to other activities as a result of screen time.

      I think you hit the nail on the head when you described your daughter as “less willing” to engage in other tasks. And that was really my only point. That there’s a difference between unable and unwilling and that we have to be careful about how we use those terms. I definitely agree that parents need to figure out what an appropriate amount of screen time is for their own children.

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