For a few years now, I’ve had this nagging worry that students are coming to college more and more distracted, less and less prepared to concentrate long enough to read — and my intuition, like that of most, is to correlate this with the proliferation of cell phone texting, twittering, IMing, gaming, etc., etc.
Then I myself learn more about this trend via Twitter itself (thanks Matt Cardin). There’s a good article in the May 17 2008 issue of New York magazine by Sam Anderson, called “In Defense of Distraction: The Benefits of Distraction and Overstimulation” which I think teachers who share my growing concern about student multitasking, ADD, and lack of focus ought to read.
Are we experiencing a “cognitive plague” — or are we simply wasting our cognitive surplus? Is “multi-tasking” a myth? Is paying attention “a kind of sexy, visceral activity”? (Sure it is!) Is meditation the solution? These are the kinds of questions raised by the article.
My question is: how can we teach focus and concentration…or at least, teach it better than our curriculum already presumes we do. I think the answer lies somewhere in how well we teach reading — whether book-length prose or complex arguments or even, perhaps, well-crafted poetry — and listening. There’s a degree to which we already expect students to be able to concentrate well; perhaps this is not an assumption we can rely on any longer in the same old ways.
It is paradoxically difficult to teach concentration and focus because it may take concentration and focus to learn it.
But there may be ways of fomenting the sort of positive distractions that Anderson writes about, which lead to greater awareness. This is why, I think Improv activities and Drama Games in the classroom work so well.