Friday, July 18, 2014

Wait, What?--Short Attention Span Theater

I’ve been noticing something in class the last few years and it disturbs me.

When I started teaching years ago, I was told by my mentor teacher to change activities every twenty minutes within a lesson.  So, about halfway through the class hour, I would move from discussion to worksheet, from lecture to group work.  Occasionally, if the lesson allowed, I’d change three times an hour, moving from a quick explanation to group work to presentations.  When I did ignore my mentor’s advice and lectured the entire hour, or assigned individual work for the duration, the students became antsy around—you guessed it—the twenty minute mark.

Now what I have noticed is that I must change activities three to four times an hour.  It is short attention span theater.  Often, things move so fast that I feel like we’ve all be inhaling helium or been caught up in a Charlie Chaplin flick.  No more than five complete sentences and we’re off to the races—seat work, group work, group presentation, discussion, wrap up.  Certainly makes the day go faster, but I’m not sure we’re learning more.

The bottom line, there is increasing need for captivating stories or visuals in the classroom as well as shifting activities to keep students motivated and involved in the lesson.  And it takes a perceptive instructor to orchestrate the learning, ready on a moment’s notice to shift the lesson to keep the students focused and on task.

What does this mean for education and teachers in the future?  According to the Chicago Tribune News, “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured more than $4 billion into efforts to transform public education in the U.S., is pushing to develop an ‘engagement pedometer.’  Biometric devices wrapped around the wrists of students would identify which classroom moments excite and interest them—and which fall flat.  The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several university researchers to begin testing the devices in middle-school classrooms this fall.”  Welcome to performance art as education, with teachers measured the way popular television is rated—by how many viewers they have and how often those viewers want to change the channel in the middle of a lesson.

There is a loss of deep thinking and analysis in nearly every area of our lives and I’ve even noticed attention deficits in myself.  At home, I absolutely cannot read with the television on in the same room.  Instant headache.  I am drawn to the stories on the TV and the dialogue and words on the page begin to intermingle to the point where my mind is overflowing with fragments and nonsensical narratives like some kind of bizarre soup concocted by a schizophrenic cook.  I require sustained focus in a quiet room or face a debilitating headache that will last for hours after the television is turned off or the book is put away.  I simply cannot multi-task, and in our society, those who cannot multi-task are made to feel inept and slow.

This is the point in the essay when I should have some answers.  How can we counteract this problem?  I don’t know.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  But I am switching activities in my lessons more frequently.  I actually try to talk at a lesser length and utilize video clips and photography to enrich the lesson, although I worry that using pictures instead of words to transmit complex ideas might be sending the wrong message and offer a much too shallow rendering of those difficult ideas.  When I do need to speak to my students for a longer length of time, I make sure to prepare what I will say and economize with my words.  If I can, I utilize story to convey the lesson, because I think storytelling is something with which I can hold their attention.  At least I think I hold their attention based on careful observation, which is a challenge given that I am both conveying the lesson and trying to gauge their reaction and focus.  Maybe that pedometer would be helpful.

There are many tools that can help keep students focused, so what every teacher must do is keep up with technology.  Technology is key.  Our students use a variety of methods to communicate and convey information, and we need to be right there with them if we are to keep their attention.

As for me personally, I turn off the television when I am reading, or if my wife is watching and I want to read, I go to another room.  When I am writing or looking at student essays, I limit anything that I know will distract me.  Even song lyrics can pull my attention away, so instrumental music is about the only thing I’ll play when working.

I have also made it a point to find quiet time every day.  I devote at least a half hour to silent contemplation—no music, no noise, no reading.  I sit, preferably in a semi-dark room, drink a cup of coffee, and just think.  I find I emerge on the other side of my brief respite more focused and mentally clear.  It is my version of the Buddhist meditation.  It is a matter of survival, and a way to stay focused in a cacophonous world.

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