Text Message from the Classroom

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Now that technology has saturated the lecture hall along with the rest of society, the challenge becomes making always-on connectivity an asset to learning instead of a distraction.

Drowning in Distractions

Your average college student now has a laptop in their backpack, a smart phone in their pocket, and probably has their eyes on a tablet if they don’t own one already. The search for Wi-Fi hot spots has been called off in favor of 3G and 4G wireless coverage. Nearly everyone can be on the Internet almost all the time.

Student distraction is nothing new. Instead of staring out the window, students are staring into Microsoft Windows. Rather than hiding comic books inside their texts, students are sneaking peeks at Facebook on their laptops. In one sense, technical distraction varies from older forms of distractibility only by a matter of degree. On the other hand, this difference is enough to push many to treat the Internet as an addiction on par with addictions to drugs, sex, or food.

Taking Distraction Seriously

Inattention, distractibility, and addiction in relation to the Internet are often seen as moral failings. “He’s a bad kid, always on Facebook and never pays attention to anything I say.” Suddenly I’m transported back in time to an earlier view of alcoholism where drunks were seen as moral degenerates rather than addicts. Today the view of alcoholism as a disease is rarely contested. We know a lot about why people drink, what moves them over the line from use, to abuse, to addiction. We also have a large body of knowledge on how to treat alcoholism. Those in the know would no more say to an alcoholic “just stop drinking” than they would say “just cheer up” to someone in the throes of clinical depression. I wonder if a similar rethinking of Internet misuse will be necessary before students emerge from their technologically-induced brain fog.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

Unlike alcoholism, problems with attention (Internet-related or otherwise) are often treated pharmacologically under the rubric of ADHD. Although the stimulants commonly used to treat ADHD make concentration easier both for those with and without the ADHD diagnosis, L. Alan Sroufe relates his concerns that these drugs come with serious limitations and may not work in the long run.

As much as teachers, professors and technology wonks decry the lack of student attention, I find little in the way of instruction on how to direct and improve attention. Students are exhorted to “pay attention” to subject matter but the skill of paying attention itself is rarely if ever addressed as a subject. In my own practice, I’m regularly confronted with clients studying esoteric maths or foreign languages, yet don’t know or don’t practice basic principles of managing attention.

Could Attention be the New EQ?

Howard Gardner argued in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences that intelligence is not just one thing, IQ, but a complex of independent mental competencies. Much attention has been paid to “emotional intelligence” or “EQ”. Daniel Goleman is well-known for his position that EQ might be more important than IQ. Following in Goleman’s steps, I’d like to propose that the skillful managing of multiple input streams is also a kind of intelligence: “attentional intelligence” or “AQ” for short, and as our world becomes more information-dense, the ability to select, focus, and make sense of this cacophony becomes all the more crucial to everyday functioning in the 21st century.

One way that the current crop of students (not to mention many working professionals) are deficient in AQ is the lack of understanding of attention itself. Multitasking is seen as a sought-after skill set and people are proud of their multitasking ‘ability.’ However research clearly demonstrates that performance plummets as soon as they divide their attention. Strangely, multitaskers don’t seem to notice this ‘in the wild.’ A proper AQ education would begin with a review of the research and practical demonstrations of how multitasking degrades performance.

While some professors are banning technology outright in the lecture hall, this doesn’t help students develop any distinctions about when to switch off. For generating ideas and collecting a lot of basic information, a dozen open tabs in the browser works great. On the other hand, drilling down into a single equation or poem requires silence, space and time for reflection. Until we teach these ‘setting the stage’ skills, why should we be surprised when term papers compete for student headspace with YouTube and Reddit?

In Search of Student Engagement

In my own life, mathematics caused me no end of headaches. I was fortunate to have a first-year algebra teacher who knew how to make the material engaging and for the first time in my life I realized I was enjoying math. Then I had him again for second-year Algebra and his presentation returned to the conventional, dry demonstration of the principles. One day I asked him about this shift. “You’re bigger now,” he explained, “you don’t need the games.” I’m as convinced now as I was then that he had it all wrong: engaging, active subject matter isn’t just for kids. Social media game giant Zynga knows how to make their games engaging to the point where millions of Facebook users play them on a daily basis. Educators handicap themselves if they dismiss the principles of engagement as irrelevant or unworthy of the classroom experience. Teaching and learning is an exchange. Students reach out with their minds and limited attention to engage with lessons that, at least ideally, are designed to engage and encourage further exploration. The more teachers understand engagement and the more students learn to hone their attention, the better the ultimate collaboration.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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