We often hear today that children’s attention spans are shortening. ‘They just can’t sit and concentrate for half an hour, like they used to!’
I question this. Most children can still concentrate for thirty minutes, but they chop it up into five chunks of six minutes and run them concurrently. I’ll give you an example: one of my four children operates his X Box controller like a Jedi-master. I’ve seldom seen a human so deft, his eyes darting across the screen like guided lasers, while his fingers and opposing thumbs twiddle and twist with pin-point accuracy. But this is not the extent of his skill; at the same time as playing his game, he can communicate with a distant co-player through his headphones, search for cheat codes on his mobile phone, balance his shoe on the end of his toes, swing to and fro on his chair and argue with his sister.
Does he have a problem concentrating? I don’t think so.
As a middle-aged father I encourage my son to adapt to my world, whilst secretly trying to acclimatise to his. We meet somewhere in the middle.
Silence rarely exists in my son’s world; there is always white noise. It is a multimodal landscape through which he navigates with the precision of a SatNav. Conversations with him are rapid, words are used with breathless efficiency. He seeks and finds meaning quicker than I can process a question.
Does he have a problem processing information? I don’t think so.
Multiply my son by thirty and you have a typical class. If each student has the same capacity to juggle quick-fire tasks, that is one hundred and eighty different things all happening at the same time in the same room. Not only can many children juggle tasks in this way, they crave the the busy buzz such juggling brings. That is not to say they should all be given so many concurrent tasks, it would be impossible to manage! But neither should we require them all to focus on just one.
Is it time to re-think the way we teach? Is it time to consider what learning looks like? Is there a difference between learning and just doing? Are educators like me teachers, coaches, facilitators or orchestral conductors?
I could try to encourage my son to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, try to strip him of his penchant for multitasking, not least for the purposes of passing an exam, but I wonder whether this will help or hinder him in the world he is going to inhabit – a world in which communication, interaction, occupation and leisure co-exist like never before.
But nothing beats a good story. He can gaze, transfixed, for hours at a cinema screen if the film is engaging enough; he doesn’t move. Perhaps this is because the film is simulating that familiar landscape in which he thrives – short bursts of action, dialogue, music and sound effects, with rapidly-changing camera angles and plot twists. Is this a clue to how teachers, the lead storytellers in the room, should hold their pupils’ attention?
How do we re-create this experience in the classroom? Should we even try? Should school be the last bastion of monologues and soliloquies from the front? Should my school be a sanctuary from the rapid race outside its walls?
Has the function of a school descended into being the place where my son learns to sit still, listen quietly and raise his hand at the appropriate moments? I don’t believe so. School is for growing minds and developing character and perhaps the optimum growing conditions in which this happens have changed.
When I was at school there was no internet, no mobile phones, no satellite television, no video games and no digital radio. The learning tools in school mirrored the leisure tools at home: books, cassette tapes, video recorders, comics and magazines, face-to-face conversation.
But the world of home has changed. Have schools caught up yet? Perhaps they should race ahead and provide a vision of what is to come?
Or is the true function of a school to be a conduit between the past and the future, anchoring children, just like my son, somewhere in the middle.