On Technology, Teaching Strategies, and Attention Spans
A recent article in the New York Times discussed the results of a national survey carried out by Vicky Rideout (http://vjrconsulting.com/children-media/) in which teachers were asked about the effects of technology on their students. You can read the article here (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/education/technology-is-changing-how-students-learn-teachers-say.html?_r=0). Teachers surveyed showed concern that technology was changing the way students are learning, specially in terms of attention spans. This has been widely written about, and is not an issue of contention. Indeed, kids who are exposed to film media have decreased attention spans, and kids exposed to interactive media even more so. However, while many teachers see this as a bad thing, it is not necessarily so.
In Johnson’s 2005 Everything Bad is Good for You, the author explains how video games are actually making people smarter. By exposing kids to complex storylines (Lost Odyssey), engaging choices (Fallout III), and engaging play (Sim and RTS games), kids’ cognitive abilities increase. Nonetheless, it is true that attention spans, specially in schools where outdated methods of instruction are the norm, suffers. So how can we fix this?
By changing how and what we teach. (http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/11/01/teachers-should-change-how-they-teach-students-today-thats-our-job-r)
Whenever teachers complain that students’ attention spans suffer because of technology, it is likely because they are using an outdated teaching method. In the 21st century, students don’t need to be lectured at. Information is freely available in “dreaded” places like Wikipedia (and the many references available in their footnotes) and university faculty pages. Students know this. It should, then, come as no big surprise when students feel bored during a class where the instructor simply feeds students facts and then expects them to regurgitate facts on a sheet of paper.
Instruction should evolve into education.
Students shouldn’t be fed facts to be regurgitated. Students should be asked to synthesize, analyze, and evaluate information. Students should be asked to relate information to everyday life. Students should be asked to create new knowledge based on old information (even if the information they come up with already exists, it should be new to them). If teachers change how they approach instruction, they’ll see that students will pay attention. If they keep teaching old content using old methodologies, however, they will just be wasting students’ times.