Thursday, December 5, 2013

Learning to focus

Focus by toolstop, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by toolstop

The topic of multitasking and our inability to concentrate on one thing at a time is a recurring topic in the media and on this blog (while writing this sentence an e-mail and a few Twitter messages rolled into my laptop with accompanying bleeps - must switch them off!). Our obsession with mobiles and social media is not a simple generational issue since parents and teachers are often just as likely to be distracted by the lure of their mobiles as teenagers are. If you think teenagers have difficulty concentrating in class just sit at the back of any conference room and see what adult professionals are doing on their laptops while someone is speaking on stage. Basically when it comes to digital technology we're all like cows who have just been let out into the field after a long cold winter. Few are able to control our desire for recognition, self-promotion and communication that technology offers us and we haven't yet had time to calm down and wonder what we're really doing.

So maybe the ability focus attention will become a key competence in schools in the near future. We need to explicitly practice the skill of focusing on one task like deep reading or simple silent reflection and learn to switch off all the bleeping distractions. This is the topic of an article in Mindshift, Age of Distraction: Why It’s Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus, that interviews Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. The ability to focus is a key factor behind all high level performers. Top artists and athletes all have the ability to focus completely on their task and in some cases enter into an almost trance like state. Today's love for multitasking and switching constantly between different activities can lead to us never acquiring this vital skill.

“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. That could be a problem for students in the U.S. who often seem addicted to their devices, unable to put them down for even a few moments. Teachers say students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems, said Goleman. These are signs that educators may need to start paying attention to the act of attention itself. Digital natives may need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.

How and when to use digital tools and devices is an essential part of the school curriculum today and that includes knowing how and when to switch off and focus. I'm not sure that having tech-free days is particularly useful because technology is ubiquitous today. Instead we should try to foster a wise use of technology. If you're focusing on writing an assignment you must of course use your laptop or tablet but you need to learn to only use the tools essential for that job and switch off the distractions. Switching off everything is an unnecessary "cold turkey" solution. We need to develop a mature relationship with technology and this will take time.

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