Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The distraction society

We live in a world where distraction is default and uninterrupted concentration a luxury that few are able to find. I'm writing this in a cafe with rather irritating and hard to ignore music in the background (it's almost impossible to find a silent cafe) as well as screens showing brightly coloured adverts and the usual billboards and logos on everything. Add to this the siren's call of my mobile buzzing to alert me to a new e-mail, text or update and it's clear that you need enormous willpower to shut out the distractions and really concentrate. We've become so used to distractions that we don't even realise their effect.

A post in Inside Higher Ed, Digital Distractions, describes the findings of a new article on digital distractions in class and student attitudes to them, Digital Distractions in the Classroom Phase II: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes (Journal of Media Education). Most students admit there are disadvantages to multitasking in class, even resulting in lower grades, but simply can't stop themselves, citing the main reasons as wanting to keep updated and fighting boredom. However the vast majority believe that they can handle the distractions and are completely against banning devices from the classroom. The comments to the article show divided opinions among teachers from those who advocate banning mobiles completely in class to more pragmatic attitudes of allowing but trying to promote more enlightened use. I think the answer lies in the whole class agreeing on a common class culture of how to deal with distractions even if this can take time to establish. The difficulty is that society is built on distractions, digital or otherwise, and its a mindset that is hard to break.

Digital media and devices have indeed increased the distraction level significantly but there are many more forms of distraction built into today's society so the digital element is not the villain of the peace but simply a symptom of a wider trend. Digital tends to magnify existing trends in society but is not the root cause. Ubiquitous music, news updates, advertising and the ludicrously overwhelming range of shops, products and services that clamour for our attention mean that distraction is now default, especially for those born in the last thirty years or so. We simply accept distraction as perfectly normal and the problem for education is helping students to find ways of escaping and consciously creating their own bubbles of concentration. In all levels of education as well as in workplaces we need to discuss issues like distraction, attention, focus and work on consciously creating such concentration bubbles for ourselves where we allow ourselves time to think and concentrate. This is a real 21st century skill and takes time and courage to develop.

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