Attention and learn… Oh, excuse me. I got a message!


EDCI – 335  Blog Post #6

Attention is a scarce commodity in schools these days. Some students can muster a few minutes of it, while others can barely pay enough attention to determine what class they are sitting in. In the past 17 years, I have seen a definite shift in the ability of kids to pay attention. I have anywhere between 30 seconds and  5 minutes to get my point across at the beginning of class and that is about it.

Even the tried and true such as showing a movie in class is lost on most kids these days. You can pretty much forget about asking kids to identify a plot line, a theme or moral imperative within even the best that hollywood has to offer. Unless the movie you are showing starts off with either a gratuitous sex scene, a gunfight or aliens having gratuitous sex in the middle of a gunfight, kids just aren’t interested.

So where does this leave us teachers?

The question we are struggling with at this point is. Are teachers just not effectively utilizing digital teaching tools to engage students, or is technology simply leading the human race to ruin?

The biggest problem here is that we do not have enough longitudinal data to be able to point a finger at any one digital innovation and say “SEE!!! Satan lives within!” We also don’t have enough information on how to effectively utilize technology to engage kids and maximize learning. All we can go by is what we see before us in our classrooms and the anecdotal evidence is mounting. The digital world has changed how our children learn and interact with the world.

The thing about the digital world is that everything is designed to demand your immediate attention. Our devices and our social networks constantly beckon us and demand a response. It is like some sort of digitized Pavlovian experiment where instead of a bell, there is a notification sound or buzz in your pocket and the reward is a little message instead of a chunk of meat.

Our need for recognition and adulation from our peers via social media has become so all-consuming that we interrupt virtually anything to check our messages. The Retrevo Gadgetology Report in 2010 looked at data from 1000 social media users and discovered that some people are even willing to interrupt sex in order to check their messages. Now last I checked, sex takes ones full attention… usually. If digital technology is powerful enough to pull you away from perhaps the most enjoyable human interaction of all, teachers don’t have a hope in hell in keeping their student’s attention whilst regaling them with the finer points of Shakespeare soliloquies.

Gigi Vorgan & Gary Small wrote in their 2009 book iBrain that:

When paying partial continuous attention, people may place their brains in a heightened state of stress. They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions. Instead they exist in a state of constant crisis-on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment. Once people get use to this state, they tend to thrive on the perpetual connectivity. It feeds their egos and sense of self-worth and it becomes irresistible.

How we go about competing with this state of perpetual attention seeking in a classroom is a bit of a mystery at the moment. If Vorgan and Small are correct, the very things we are trying to get kids to do in the classroom are effectively hamstrung by this constant need for digital affirmation. Of course the simplistic solution is just banning the device from the classroom but that doesn’t work because your students spend the entire class jonesing for their digital fix.

The simple thinkers in the crowd (usually politicians) then say… “Well then if they are glued to the device all the time then start delivering curriculum through it!” but the kids are not interested in the device so much as the kind of message it delivers. How do you go about breaking curriculum into snippets of information that “feeds their egos and sense of self-worth” so kids will internalize it? Personally I don’t think we need to butcher our curriculum to suit the digitally dependant.

As much as I love technology, I don’t think the solution can be found with more technology. I work with kids everyday who have managed to find a balance between digital and non digital learning environments. The can read, think, reflect and do all those things we have expected of kids in days gone by and then they can turn around and use technology to demonstrate their learning with some amazing results. As much as I would like to claim these kids have found this balance by way of a teacher such as myself, more often than not it is because of their parents digital use policy at home.

To solve our problems in the classroom involving digital technology, we need kids to have home environments where access to digital devices is not unlimited or unmonitored. A home where phones are not welcome at the breakfast, lunch or dinner table and the digital device is never used as a pacifier. Books should be paper and plentiful and never should attending to your cellphone be more important that attending to your child.

Paying attention to something isn’t something kids only do at school. In fact it starts long before they ever set foot in our classroom. As with everything, a good foundation begins at home.


  1. Michelle Hiebert

    ***Standing and applauding*** Yes to every single word you wrote, Keith! Like I wrote in my blog assignment, I knew a high school teacher’s opinion would differ greatly from mine…and yet the regulation of the tech is a common theme with both of our posts.

    You are so right when you say, “As with everything, a good foundation begins at home.” If only all of our students had support at home, our jobs would be much easier, don’t you think?

  2. Heidi James

    I giggled out loud at the image of standing and pointing at the device and exclaiming about satan!! I could visualize it perfectly!
    I loved your points about how significantly the expectations at home can impact our students’ foundations at school. It comes down to meeting basic needs: I have students who are so tired from texting/viewing/gaming long past midnight that they struggle to pay attention to ANY lesson at school, no matter how engaging it may be.

  3. SStewart

    I appreciated your post and perspective, Keith. I worry a lot too 🙂 Sometimes I am not sure if there are enough resources and supports for parents in this regard. I often wonder if confusion about what to do leads to doing nothing. I posted a third bit about texting last night, but I am not sure what the conversation needs to be and who should lead it… and where 🙂 Are there enough conversations between the elementary and HS levels/teachers to help in this regard?

    I don’t expect you to answer any of those questions… just questioning out loud here 🙂

  4. Vivian

    Hi Keith

    Thanks for this blogpost. I enjoyed reading it a lot because it makes me feel good to know that I’m not the only teacher/parent/adult that feels these things.

    I am pulled one way by my tech integration in education studies and my understanding of all the positive things that tech can bring. I’m pulled the other way as a parent. (There are days when I think it’s the “great satan” in our household too 😉 )

    I’m just glad I’m not a parent of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who have to grapple with whether they should use an iPad as a pacifier or not…

    I believe that my tech in education studies have brought enough reading and experience across my path that I feel pretty confident about the boundaries I have set for my own children at home. I feel confident to enforce them.

    It helps that I can steer my children towards the more creative uses of technology. So, I’m not really taking away the device. I’m finding ways for them to use it to a better end. (The consumption vs creation argument).

    I’m not too sure I would be able to see the boundaries, enforce them, or steer my children towards better uses of technology if I wasn’t in the “know” about technology myself. I wonder how other parents do it and maybe it explains why a lot of them don’t. They don’t know what to make of it all and don’t know where to start.

    Our school has a parent course about technology. That’s a start.

    I don’t have any answers. These are just my thoughts and beyond this, I’m not too sure what to advise.


  5. Harprit

    Hi Keith,
    Great post! I agree with you completely when it comes to regulating cell phone use in class. My students may forget to bring their books, pencils or calculator to class but they always somehow manage to remember their cell phones.

    Although this week’s topic has been on attention, there is definitely another underlying theme which you also allude to with the constant need for immediate attention. The instances of anxiety and attention deficit disorder have been increasing at an exponential rate. I would argue that technology has played a large part in this. Even as an adult I feel slightly uncomfortable when I forget my cell phone at home. That feeling of disconnect leaves me anxious and is not remedied until I get home to check my phone. Extrapolate that to our students and the social clouds they are apart of while outside of school combined with the usual high school social drama/hierarchies and you have a recipe for anxiety and ADD/ADHD.

    I think parental involvement is crucial and as Michelle has suggested time and again, an emphasis needs to be put on play for kids.

    Great job as always, your blog is always an entertaining and insightful read!

  6. Nick Zap

    Hello Keith – Thank you for making me laugh out loud!! (no need to highlight what got me ;-). Your point that “Our devices and our social networks constantly beckon us and demand a response. It is like some sort of digitized Pavlovian experiment” hits the nail on the head. The constant need for ongoing novelty and instant gratification has made our jobs as educators extremely difficult. I like that you say “don’t think the solution can be found with more technology,” but you’d be a minority in current circles on making teaching and learning relevant to students (which ultimately leads to tech integration). Classrooms maybe the only place where students get a break from a digitized Pavlovian experiment.
    Fantastic post!!

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