Putting Student Distraction In Context

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.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

4 thoughts on “Putting Student Distraction In Context”

  1. When I blogged about Anderson’s essay, I noted that he briefly states his thesis, then spends a goodly chunk of time presenting good arguments *against* his claim. Students who are used to scanning for the gist might mistake his real purpose, and cite the “con” part of his paper without realizing that he has introduced these claims in order to knock them down (or at least qualify them).
    One of the experts on digital youth culture, the capital-letter-averse danah boyd, asks whether all this talk about rampant ADD in teen culture might just a projection of the adult world on youth. “What we do know is that there is far more media available to consume today. With thousands of TV stations and the Internet, there’s almost infinite choice. Guess what? With more choice, people are needlessly asking themselves “is there something better?” Channel surfing is not a new phenomenon. Given choice, people are worried that they might be missing something.”
    When my son was about eight, and he started regularly beating me at chess, he took my face into his hands and said, “Daddy, you have to look at the *whole board*.” He must have read in a chess book that the secret to playing a good game of chess is to avoid jumping after the first good move that you see, because the easy-to-spot good move may be masking an even better move.
    So, I don’t think the “problem” is that young people are open to so many stimuli, and I don’t think that the “solution” is to get them to stop wanting to seek out alternatives. But we do have to motivate them to do the intellectual heavy lifting that comes from, for example, finding authoritative evidence in peer-reviewed journals, rather than looking up the answer on Wikipedia. So I would agree, Mike, that the best solution is to get students excited about intellectual inquiry, so that they approach an issue from an angle that makes them *want* to share authoritative evidence that backs up their way of looking at the issue, rather than simply jotting down a gut-level reaction and “looking for facts” (from random sources) to back up their feeling.

  2. Glad you appreciated my Twittering about that article, Mike. Like you, I thought it was quite a rewarding read (the article, not my Tweet).
    Also like you, I’m a teacher — first a high school one for seven years, now a college one — who finds the issue of mounting student distraction to be more than a little ominous. Moreover, I see it happening in myself as well, and in all of my friends, family, and acquaintances. FAHRENHEIT 451, anybody?
    My favorite quote from the article hints at the truly stark future we face as this era of frantic distraction intensifies toward some kind of insane singularity:
    “Meyer responds [to the question of whether we’re living through a crisis of attention] with the air of an Old Testament prophet. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘And I think it’s going to get a lot worse than people expect.’ He sees our distraction as a full-blown epidemic — a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought. He compares it, in fact, to smoking. ‘People aren’t aware what’s happening to their mental processes,’ he says, ‘in the same way that people years ago couldn’t look into their lungs and see the residual deposits.”

  3. By way of a p.s., I’ll point out that I, too, was interested to note what Dennis mentions in his comment above: That Anderson devoted the bulk of his space to building a case against his thesis. And he did a good job of it. I finished the article feeling that his argument for the non-apocalyptic-ness and even the positive benefits of our culture of infinite distraction, while interesting, was completely overpowered by the opposite argument that he presented in such admirable detail. This impression may have been abetted by the rhetorical and even the visual form of his article, which reserves the details of the “distraction and overstimulation are good” part for a final section that feels a bit hasty and tacked on due its location and comparative brevity.

  4. Anderson seems to be interested in starting a conversation with people who are inclined to disagree with him, rather than shouting down opponents or preaching to the choir. I agree, the depth of his “con” section does make his final statement appear a little rushed, but it did get us all talking about the issue, adding our own thoughts to the ones Anderson made. That’s a skillful use of the medium!

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