Guest Post by Dr. John Thompson

I used to entertain my students by bellowing Steve Goodman’s song, “The 20th Century is almost over, almost over, almost over …”  Since then, education reform has attempted a great leap into the early 1900’s, imposing a rote learning assembly line worthy of Henry Ford.  In the meantime, the 21st century is already here, and we have ducked the hard conversations that adults must have with our children.

The New York Times and cognitive scientist Dan Willingham have recently discussed two important surveys on the decline of students’ attention spans.  The Pew Internet Project and Common Sense Media both report on teachers’ beliefs that “students’ use of digital technology adversely affects their attention spans and makes them less likely to stick with challenging tasks.”

Students from the ages of 8 to 18 spend twice as much time in front of digital screens as they spend in school.  Teachers have tried to respond by becoming more entertaining, but one asked, “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”

The first problem, says one scientist, is that heavy use of technology “makes reality by comparison uninteresting.”   This leads to the second problem, explains another educators, “students’ ability to focus and fight through academic challenges was suffering an ‘exponential decline.’”

Willingham further explained that we must consider two different parts of students’ attention span. He suspects kids today have not lost their overall ability to pay attention. “Rather, the seemingly shorter attention span is their ability to maintain attention on a task that is not very interesting to them,” he suggests. Today’s students have not lost the “raw capacity to direct one’s attention.” It is their willingness to focus their attention that has suffered.

In other words, we need a cross generational discussion about our beliefs about what is worthy of attention and about how much effort should expended when getting an education. These studies, which have been described as “a clarion call for a healthy and balanced media diet,” recall John Merrow’s complaint that adults have abdicated their responsibility in terms of teaching young people to be “digital citizens.” Merrow concludes that “technology is not value-free. We have choices to make.”

Conversations can begin with adults asking the younger generation of “digital natives” for help in using today’s technology.  Then, I bet, kids will welcome conversations about the values necessary to control digital tools and not be controlled by them. After all, the real issue is how we can empower our children and that is just as interesting of a topic for students as it is for adults.  Once we give it a try, we are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the way that students respond to the dialogue.  If they balk, Goodman’s lyrics can always be updated, “The 21st century is already here, already here, already here … all over this world.”

John Thompson taught for 18 years in the inner city.  He blogs regularly at This Week in Education, Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue, the Huffington Post and Schools Matter.  He is completing a book, Getting Schooled, on his experiences in the Oklahoma City Public School System.