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Attention Span: Technology – Friend Or Foe?

Educators should look at technology as a student's friend, not a foe. By taking away a student's cell phone, you lose a teachable moment. A mobile device is a powerful educational tool. Not all students know how much of its value extends beyond social media. Let us talk about attention span and how technology can help rather than harm it.
Attention Span: Technology – Friend Or Foe?
A Dash for the Timber, 1889, by Frederic S. Remington

The Average Attention Span: Humans And Goldfish

Goldfish float in the tank fluttering back and forth, back and forth. Why don’t they look bored? Is this any different than watching people play Candy Crush over and over again? In 2015, The Telegraph posted an article suggesting that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones. If this is true, then most of their readers did not read the conclusion:

Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn’t mean that the way our attention actually can function has changed.

What Is The Average Attention Span? 

Some research suggests that using a child’s age plus one year is a starting point for the number of minutes a child can attend to a single assigned task – 5 +1 minutes for a 5-year-old, 8 minutes for a 7-year-old, etc. This means that a teenager may be able to pay attention in class for 14 to 19 minutes. However, activity, interest, motivation, fatigue, among other things, factor into attention span. There are certain things that we can do for hours on end like Candy Crush. Then there are lectures, readings, and textbooks that put us to sleep in the first five minutes or two pages.

What’s The Real Problem? 

Perhaps instead of worrying about how technology distracts students and alters their attention spans, we should consider the real problem, which is how we teach our children. If a 15-year old’s attention span is 16 minutes, is the 50 to 90-minute teaching block broken into 15-minute segments? If our attention spans are as short as the number of years we have lived, plus one or two, we need to make sure that what our students do in the classroom is engaging and dynamic.

Learning Efficiently 

Why don’t we use the internet as a tool to get past the trivial stuff so that we can engage our students in the chunks of time that we teach them? Using technology to promote learning, teaches self-motivation, pacing, and an efficient way to learn the essentials of math, science, reading, and writing. Encouraging and training students to use technology to gain knowledge efficiently, provides us with the space to teach them more about the world. It also allows for self-pacing, which takes care of the attention span issue.

Some teachers have issues with cell phones in the classroom. They are distractions. However, in this second decade of the 21st century, we need to teach students to use the technology as a versatile tool. They will never part with it so why not use this “distractor” to your advantage and to show them its educational power. Plus, students who use cell phones in the classroom are more likely to figure out how to work around the distraction.

Open Up The Span Of Learning 

By the time students reach university, they should use their phones to communicate with other students, take notes, or calculate. The tool provides them with a compact and powerful tool to communicate with and learn from the world around them. If students have short attention spans perhaps they are bored with traditional education. Perhaps they are bored listening to someone drone on about something that would take one minute to look up on the Internet.

Did you ever think that perhaps it’s not the attention span that is the problem, but it is the way that we are teaching that is? We cannot blame their declining attention span on the smartphone. The smartphone is a ticket to learning. The smart time can give them the time they need to engage in important complex issues that no one else can solve, or write articles that no one else has written, or make new scientific discoveries.

The extra time students gain by using shortcuts that technology provides gives them more time to explore things that it cannot teach us like compassion, empathy, grit, love, pain, dedication, motivation, how to navigate the world, and how to be happy.

Technology Is No Villain

Technology is not the villain when it comes to attention span. Students just need to learn how to use it more as a tool and less as a distractor. When we use technology in our classrooms, we open space for critical thinking and problem solving. We allow students to reach beyond the confines of the classroom. Then our students can move outside of the classroom to be interns, volunteer for people in need, perform scientific experiments, create masterpieces, or write symphonies, rather than floating in a tank fluttering back and forth, back and forth.

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