By Lauren Goldberg, second year CLAIR student
Kids today can’t pay attention, and technology is the culprit. While this is a fashionable position taken by many educators and parents, cognitive neuroscientist and educational researcher Daniel Willingham does not succumb to trends. In a March 19th talk at Fordham University, Willingham demonstrated a healthy, scientific skepticism towards concerns about “kids today,” holding conventional wisdom to the test of scientific research.
To frame the talk, he asked, “Does exposure to digital technologies shorten attention span?” Willingham presented several studies addressing the question, sharing their methodologies (describing the tests from memory) and interpreting results, graphs and tables aloud. He concluded that technology probably does not alter our attention spans, but it may alter our attitudes towards what we deem worthy of attention. Summing up with implications for teachers, he confessed that despite his extreme skepticism, he’s found some studies indicating the benefits of mindfulness, a form of meditation, for developing attention.
Intrigued by this suggestion, and inspired by Willingham’s review of research, I searched for a study with adolescent participants that examined the relationship between mindfulness and attention. One of the first lessons I learned in the CLAIR program is that I must identify my biases as a researcher. So, here’s full disclosure: I’ve been practicing yoga and meditation for 9 years. After enthusiastically attending the “Mindfulness in Education Conference” this summer at Omega Institute, I purchased Tibetan prayer bells to ring in my classroom, hoping to help my students cultivate a sense of focused calm. In other words, I want the research to tell me that mindfulness works.
Weijer-Bergsma, Fordmsma, Bruin & Bögels (2012) investigated the effects of mindfulness training on the behavior and attention of adolescents diagnosed with ADHD and their parents. They referred to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Adolescent participants went through 8 weeks of mindfulness training with weekly 1.5 hour, small group lessons led by cognitive behavioral therapists who were also mindfulness practitioners. Mindfulness techniques included meditation, body scans, breathing techniques, and role-playing. Their parents participated in a parallel program over the same time period.
To measure changes in the adolescents’ attention, researchers utilized self-reports, reports from parents and teachers, and three computerized tests of attention: Baseline Speed measured reaction time; Sustained Attention Dots measured visual attention; Sustained Attention Auditory measured auditory attention.
Data were collected during a pretest, a posttest, and twice more after the conclusion of the training. The three computerized tests were broken down into three variables: speed, misses, and false alarms. The Baseline Speed test showed no significant changes. The Sustained Attention Dots test revealed a significant reduction in reaction speed between the pretest and posttest (effect size = .09, p < .01), indicating that the mindfulness training slowed down reaction speed. The Sustained Attention Auditory test revealed no change in speed, but a significant and steady reduction in false alarms (effect size = .05, p < .05). Even though the data indicated improvement in only one subscore of one test, researchers summarize these results as “enhanced performance on computerized attention tasks” (Weijer-Bergsma et al., 2012).
Despite the researchers’ optimistic interpretation of their findings, the study does not strongly confirm positive effects of mindfulness training on adolescents’ attention span (although participants, including parents, reported reductions in stress, and adolescents did self-report a reduction of attention-related behavior problems). The study’s ethos is further weakened by the short duration of the intervention, as well as its small sample (adolescents, n = 8, mothers, n = 10, fathers, n = 9) that is not representative of any generalized population. Fellow CLAIR student Alexandria Garino pointed out that the computerized tests might have been too simple to measure changes in attention related to ADHD.
In a blog post “Should students meditate?” Willingham (2012) critiqued the existing research, noting that the majority of studies utilized adult participants, and that long-term benefits of mindfulness practice might require longer training than volunteers will undergo. He ended with these conclusions: “At this point, the benefits of mindfulness mediation are not clear enough to make a claim that there is scientific backing for the practice in schools, if the hoped-for benefit is academic. But this is a research literature worth keeping on the radar.”
I look forward to following this research, and hopefully, adding to it myself. While Willingham’s presentation at Fordham was interesting, to me the story felt incomplete without qualitative support. Educational research, to be most valuable, must evaluate theoretical findings through practical, real-world application. I hope to take the opportunity that educational research provides us to examine a question not only through carefully-constructed questionnaires and experiments, but also through meaningful dialogue, relationships and experiences.
Garino, A. (2014, Mar 30). RE: Can mindfuness increase attention? [Discussion board]. Retrieved from https://fordham.blackboard.com
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156. doi: 10.1093/clilpsy.bpg016
Weijer-Bergsma, E., Fordmsma, A.R., Bruin, E.I., Bögels, S.M. (2012). The effectiveness of mindfulness training on behavioral problems and attentional functioning in adolescents with ADHD. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 21, 775-787. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3438398/. doi: 10.1007/s10826-011-9531-7
Willingham, D. (2012, Feb 24). Should students meditate? [Web log]. Retrieved from http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2012/02/should-students-meditate.html