We Need To Teach Kids How To Pay Attention
“Children need lessons in how to concentrate because of impact of social media,” reads the headline of a recent article in the British newspaper The Independent. The story quotes Tristram Hunt, a Labour Party politician, as saying of students: “They need to learn the ability to concentrate for sustained periods—especially in today’s world of short attention spans. I think young people need help with being able to do that.”
The article caught my eye because I’ve made similar arguments. In a previous post on the Brilliant Blog, for example, I quoted UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield:
“The informal learning environments of television, video games, and the Internet are producing learners with a new profile of cognitive skills. This profile features widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills, such as iconic representation and spatial visualization . . .
Formal education must adapt to these changes, taking advantage of new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence and compensating for new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.
These develop through the use of an older technology, reading, which, along with audio media such as radio, also stimulates imagination. Informal education therefore requires a balanced media diet using each technology’s specific strengths in order to develop a complete profile of cognitive skills.”
I love Greenfield’s notion that we all need to develop “a complete profile of cognitive skills”—and especially her suggestion that the “informal education” that young people receive via their devices is beneficial and yet also incomplete. Using apps, playing video games and surfing the Web can help kids learn some things—but they are not likely to teach them other things that they really need to know.
Like, for instance, how to pay sustained attention to one thing for an extended period of time. For that purpose, books are better than Internet-connected devices. As I wrote in another Brilliant Blog post about the value of “deep reading” (that is, reading that is immersive and uninterrupted):
“Observing young people’s attachment to digital devices, some progressive educators and permissive parents talk about needing to ‘meet kids where they are,’ molding instruction around their onscreen habits. This is mistaken. We need, rather, to show them someplace they’ve never been, a place only deep reading can take them.”
Brilliant readers, what do you think? Do today’s students need explicit instruction in how to pay sustained attention? What’s the best way for them to learn and practice that skill?