Questions to Challenge Our Thinking About Young People & Attention Spans

at·ten·tion span – the length of time during which someone is able to think about or remain interested in something

“Kids today have such a short attention span.” Have you heard that before? Have you said it? While there are ample studies that one can point to in support of such claims, I offer the following questions as part of the larger conversation about young people and attention spans.

Has the capacity for attention changed?

I’ve yet to see research showing that the human brain’s capacity for deep, focused attention has diminished. The research about attention spans among youth is not a claim to a sudden evolutionary change in young people’s brains. In fact, the growing literature around neuroplasticity would seem to indicate the attention span of young and old can be lengthened with practice. This has huge implications for education. So, there is no need for a fatalistic response.

In my early years of teaching, I remember being told that we should chunk lessons into fifteen minute segments because young people today can’t attend to anything longer than that. Of course, we already tend to force breaks in student attention every 45-50 minutes in most schools. Then some thought of this idea called block-scheduling. The problem is that the length of time changed, but it didn’t seem like the practices changed enough to effectively leverage the benefits of larger blocks of time.

Have you visited a Montessori or project-based learning school lately?

This would actually be a helpful study, looking at the attention span of young people in these schools compared to more traditional schools. I’ve been to many such schools, and I consistently see students who get immersed in projects and explorations for extended periods…sometimes hour at a time. This seems to indicate that the environments where young people spend their time can have a huge impact on attention span. So, instead of breaking up lessons into 15-minute segments to address the supposedly inevitable declining attention span young people, perhaps we could consider how we might design learning environments that engage, invite and cultivate the joy of getting lost in a project or idea.

Attention to what and for what purpose?

Behind the statements about declining attention spans, it often seems to be more a commentary on young people’s difficulty paying attention to the way schools has been done in the past: difficulty paying attention to a talking head, difficulty paying attention while reading a certain text, etc. I happen to think that cultivating an attention span for such activities remains valuable. If we want to empower students to be self-directed learners who are capable of learning from a variety of experiences and people, that means learning to learn from things that are boring.

The problem is that some seem to suggest that the solution is forcing them to sit through lots of boring things. What if we instead helped students discover and tap into strategies to be motivated? That comes from having genuine interest or perceiving meaning and value in something. When student perceives something as meaningful, their attention span extends significantly. So, what we might sometimes view as decreased attention span might actually be a shift in perceived meaning and value.

How is it that video games manage to keep the attention of some people for hours without a bathroom break?

That is an impressive attention span. Of course, it is different from much of school because there is near constant change and feedback. It also has all those game features that manage to cultivate attention. One argument is that we should study these game design principles and use them to engage learners in school. I don’t think that a terrible idea sometimes, but I contend that it is even more exciting to think of what would happen if we helped students exegete the principles of engagement in game design and learn to leverage those principles to maintain attention for themselves.

What does attention look like? What does inattention look like?

Is it possible that attention and inattention looks different for different students? If so, perhaps there is also the risk of misinterpreting certain student actions and behaviors. I’m not denying that students are indeed inattentive at time, only that our subjective measure may need revisiting.

Why not teaching attention?

If there is concern about attention spans, why not invite students into a challenge to address it. Why does attention matter? What happens when it is present? What happens when it is absent? What is the global implications of inattention and short attention spans? What are the benefits? What good can be done in the world by people who cultivate attention spans? This could be a rich and rewarding exploration with the students. I suspect that they could come up with answers that would amaze many of us.

Given the diminishing attention span for reading lengthy blog posts, I suppose that I should stop here.

Posted in Attention, blog, education, PBL

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.