This is the first in our “reflections” series where we will highlight the voices of various members of the CLAIR community. This reflection was written by a doctoral candidate in response to the talk given by Daniel Willingham on March 19.
By Alexandria Garino
Parents notice it; certainly teachers complain of it. The “it” in question is attention, or rather, the lack thereof. It is fascinating (especially to those of us born well before Facebook) to consider how facile today’s kids are with so many different platforms, and how easily they flit from one task to another. The dark side of this talent is seen in the classroom, where students lack the cognitive ability to stay on task or read a book for more than a few minutes. It seems the nation’s attention capacity has been reduced to the span of a text message or tweet. The conclusion most often drawn is that technology is to blame and is changing the brains of our young people. A change like that has to be bad. This past Wednesday, Daniel Willingham—Harvard-trained PhD and popular cognitive neuroscientist—delivered a guest lecture to Fordham’s Graduate School of Education tackling some of these issues. With us, he explored whether or not new technologies make kids distracted.
Compared with older people, kids excel at multi-tasking. The reasons, suggested by Dr. Willingham, may surprise you. Kids are better multi-taskers because they have larger working memories—a greater attention load available to apply to a cognitive challenge. Kids have always had larger working memories compared with their elders; technology has not changed that. Technology has simply made multi-tasking easier, more attractive, and more obvious. Attention is necessary for multi-tasking; however, even the best and most nimble-brained among us don’t truly do more than one thing at once. Multitasking is deceptive. It appears that we do several things at once because we rapidly switch attention from one task to another. But, switching comes at a cost. We sacrifice time and accuracy when we do more than one thing simultaneously. Switching attention forces us to refocus and catch-up with the task from which we’ve switched away. This confirms the suspicion of parents that texting friends does, indeed, interfere with writing that history paper. (The scientific jury is still out deliberating over whether listening to music interferes with cognitive tasks).
Despite the explosive increase in technology use, Willingham argued that attention span has not changed much. He conceded that there is some phenomenon being observed in the classroom, but the behavior is not caused by a decrease or change in attention. Using the metaphor of a floor plan (resembling that of a pre-war junior 6 on the Upper West Side), Willingham explained that the brain is plastic, but only to a small degree. Humans can change the “size of a room slightly, but we are not able to switch the bathroom and put it where the hall used to be.” This makes sense when we consider evolution. It takes many, many generations to adapt and change. It is highly unlikely that the radiation emitted by, or the rapid-fire screen changes, or the fill-in-the-blank characteristic, of new technologies has sped along this age-old process. We have seen some changes; for example, gamers perform better on some visual tasks and perhaps are more visually observant compared to those who do not game, but this is an example of the expanded room and not the altered floor plan.
So, if not technology, what is to blame? Willingham offered a personal theory, which he quickly admitted is not (yet) supported by evidence. He attributed the change in behavior to a lower tolerance of boredom. Kids’ expectations have been drastically altered by technology. Kids are more selective and are empowered to determine what is worth their attention. They are also used to a state of constant stimulation. At no other point in history have humans been so unaccustomed to boredom. Growing tired of Facebook? No problem, simply find something more engaging with a simple click of a mouse or communicate with multiple friends across the globe. Now, consider the fact that social interaction and information is a valuable commodity to kids—social information is only as valuable as it is timely (hence, the expression: “that was so 10 minutes ago!”). It should not surprise any that technology has completely captivated the young imagination.
New technologies are a major competitor in the classroom and now that they are here, they are here to stay. What does this mean for 21st century learning? Well, Dr. Willingham did not specifically address that question during this discussion, but he suggested that parents factor into their children’s schedules more quiet, slower paced activities, allowing kids to recalibrate the need for constant stimulation. In education circles that question will likely be argued for some time yet. This participant’s hunch is that there is not one simple answer. Perhaps we educators need to rise to the challenge and make our content relevant and more interesting—not necessarily faster paced. Instead of our attending to learning styles, we should teach in the style best able to deliver the content (Willingham, 2005); sometimes that means using technology in interesting ways, sometimes not. In the age of readily accessible data, institutions and educators need to reconsider what it is we do and how we can best prepare our students to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, problem-solving citizens. Some reinvention is in order. Students already know how to find the data—it’s everywhere. Instead, we need to teach them what they can do with it. Personally, we educators have to ask ourselves another question: do we continue to fight the technology villain, or do we put aside our fears, get ready to be disturbed, and befriend the foe? Perhaps in the reinventing and in the conversations, we will discover some answers.
Willingham, D. T. (2005). The Content’s Best Modality Is Key. American Educator, Summer. http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/summer2005/willinghamsb2.cfm