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:
- A procedure to teach self-control to children with ADHD
- Developing fluency and endurance in a child diagnosed with ADHD
- Tips to improve attention
- How to get elementary kids to pay attention
- Technology Is Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say (nytimes.com)
- Driven to distraction: How to help wired students learn to focus (eschoolnews.com)
- Meme (ethanud.wordpress.com)
- Is technology changing students’ brains? (washingtonpost.com)