We Need To Teach Kids How To Pay Attention

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“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?


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6 Responses to “We Need To Teach Kids How To Pay Attention”

  1. Luke says:

    Yes, of course. Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” discusses how various information technologies throughout history have changed our thinking and our brains. Before TV, radio and the Internet, the printed page and verbal communication was the only source for recorded educational information. Books made us deep, newsprint and journals made us broad. Electronic medias have made us flit.

    Here’s another take. It’s hard for anyone today to be a true Renaissance Person, since every discipline has grown so incredibly deep. People are obliged to become deep if they expect to be a professional (see Gladwell’s “Outliers”). Perhaps the interdisciplinary, 21-century Renaissance Person will only be possible owing to the quick, flitting nature of Internet media.

  2. Annie, come on. Have a little faith in children.

    All kids, even those that play video games have the ability to stick at a challenge for extended periods of times. Most video games actually require you to stick at a challenge for an extended period of time.

    I’ve never met a student who does not enjoy reading a novel on occasion. The same holds true for every adult I’ve known. This is despite never having had any explicit instruction in “paying attention”.

    Human beings are enormously adaptable. If there is value to them in reading long-form pieces then they will seek out that value. You’re more likely to confuse the situation by trying to train for attention.

  3. M. Catlett says:

    I used to think this way – admittedly, I don’t know how it might be for older kids as mine’s not even three – but then I found my son naturally gravitates to puzzle games and interactive books on the electronic device. Oh, he’s got some mysterious love with dentist and doctor games too, but all in all I think his attention span has improved from the device.

    It’s all a matter of what the content is rather than the medium, I think.

  4. Julie says:

    I spend a lot of time observing my kids and it’s obvious to me that they have an incredible attention span. You just have to encourage them to do what they love for long stretches and you see it emerge. So I’m with the content not medium camp. They get a mix of activities every day – electronic device, books, music, sports, drawing, imaginative play…. and as long as they are enjoying themselves, they stick with it. What I truly love is seeing a new obsession develop. That’s when the true time commitment and devotion to expertise flourish.

  5. derick cachola says:

    Choosing between digital from hard manuscripts, children simply grabs the gizmos…the reason why close supervision of an adult is always needed.

    Problem arises when an adult is busy leveling up flappy birds…chances are kids do the same.

  6. Grace says:

    I think there’s a ton of difference between a kid shifting attention between multiple forms of media – which does happen a lot in today’s world – for example, texting, checking social networks while reading with the TV on in the background – and one that is immersed in one activity, regardless of what format that takes. I’m not sure that the delivery format actually matters. Scratch, for example, is a wonderful program that teaches kids how to code – surely that is a task that requires problem solving, imagination and the higher order networks, even if delivered on a device.

    There’s also research to show that video games (even action-packed shooters) can actually enhance focus and attention. Daphne Bavelier’s Ted talk, Your brain on video games, talks about this rather remarkable insight.

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