Is technology hindering our ability to persevere?

Good teachers are great communicators, and great communicators understand that the responsibility of communication lies with the communicator—the person sharing the information.

Good teachers, and I’m using the word “teachers” here in the broadest sense, have a real stake in their audience’s ability to understand. They want us to understand so badly that they take full responsibility for whether or not we are getting it. So, they don’t just tell us, they show us. They don’t just show us one way, they show us several ways. They take everything into account: our mood, the temperature and lighting of the room, our posture and facial expressions, our blood sugar levels. Everything.

This is what great communicators do. Good teachers are great communicators. Great teachers take one more critical step. They show us how to take responsibility for our learning—by probing, observing, and adjusting the inner workings of our own attention, perceptions, and understanding. Great teachers teach us to recognize and control what’s going on in our own heads.

It is in this spirit that I share what many of my colleagues and I believe is a disturbing trend. We believe that the modern student is less able to hold his focus, less able to pay attention for extended periods of time, and more easily distractible than ever before.

Apparently, we aren’t alone. A recent article in the New York Times entitled, “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say,” shares the results from two independent surveys, concluding, “There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.”

The surveys were conducted by the Pew Research Center and Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that advises parents on media use by children. The Common Sense Survey was conducted by Vicky Rideout, a researcher who had previously shown that children ages 8 to 18 now spend on average twice as much time in front of screens each year as they spend in school.

Nearly 90 percent of the 3,147 teachers surveyed said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

The New York Times reported that of the 685 teachers surveyed in the Common Sense project, 71 percent said they thought technology was hurting attention span “somewhat” or “a lot.” About 60 percent said it hindered students’ ability to write and communicate face to face, and almost half said it hurt critical thinking and their ability to do homework. Also interesting was the fact that both younger and older teachers felt the same way about the impact of technology on their students’ ability to direct and control attention.

There has always been an aspect of teaching that is entertainment. It is true that good teachers know how to be good entertainers. Good teachers know how to get students’ attention, hold it, and make learning fun along the way. They might be great storytellers, or they may use technology to make learning dynamic and flexible, or they might use creative and interesting assignments. The caveat here is that while they understand how to make learning entertaining, great teachers also understand that they should not always make learning easy. We know that the most successful among us are not the ones for whom everything came easily. The most successful among us are those that have learned to overcome adversity. Successful people know what to do with a challenge. They also know what to do with failure.

The argument that the New York Times makes is that students have grown so accustomed to using technology to get quick and easy answers that they are more likely to give up when solutions elude them.

There’s no question that video games, the Internet, and smartphones can be fun and entertaining. The question parents and teachers need to ask is: can we create a balanced media diet that stimulates growth without sacrificing a willingness to persevere?

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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