A Focus on Focus
I’m an English teacher. And although I don’t get to do it as much as I like, I love to read. On summer days when the sweltering heat and humidity of August in Pennsylvania became too much, I would curl up in some cool corner and read and read and read. Sometimes my father would have to break me out of my reverie for meals. Such was my focus. Reading for three or four hours straight was rather common for me and my brother. And this was in middle school.
Now I know I can’t expect all of my students to love reading as much as I do or be able to focus on a single task for three or four hours, but what the heck happened to the ability to focus? Is this some old fashioned skill that will fall by the way or be learned by only a select few like cobbling or blacksmithing? Was it good old-fashioned willpower, gumption as my grandfather would say, that helped me to be successful in college and my career? Was I just born with it or can it be taught?
In conjunction with my thinking about willpower, I wondered if perhaps my students are better multitasking than I am. With the ubiquity of mobile computing–and its inclusion in BYOT in schools–are my students coming to me with better skills at multitasking? I’m very good at doing one thing at a time and doing it well. I’m good at blocking out extraneous noise(in books, on TV or in movies, or just as annoying background noise) to focus on a task. I recall reading something about how the younger generations brains are reprogrammed by growing up bombarded by all things digital. Is this something I need to learn? Or are my students coming to me somehow hampered by the environment in which they have grown up? It was time to do some research.
The Dumbest Generation?
Multitasking and its effect on cognition are fertile ground for brain scientists. Even the PBS show Frontline has followed their curiosity to ask neuroscientists about this. Chapter 5 “The Dumbest Generation” and chapter 4 “Teaching with Technology” are especially worth viewing.
This video from Fora.tv is an excerpt from a longer lecture. From the video’s description: “Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, explains why the human brain struggles to process information that is presented ‘with the intensity and the quantity and the speed we find ourselves surrounded by today.'”
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the neuroscience of multitasking. Others have can explain it far better and if you are interested the videos and this study (Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers) will give you a jump start. Here’s a key conclusion from the study: “This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to ﬁlter out interference from the irrelevant task set.”
The short-short answer is that the brains of our students are different as a result of the media bombardment. Teenagers are on the whole poor decision makers. This is a result of a variety of factors: raging hormones as they develop make it often difficult to regulate emotional responses, their brains are not fully developed (and not “done” until their mid-20’s), and peer/media pressure(Twitter, Facebook, YOLO, bullying etc.) goads teens to try potentially risky behaviors or just behaviors contrary to their parent’s wishes. Add this to the cognitive research sited earlier, and we’ve got a generation that doesn’t focus nearly as well as those before it.
It’s all about the marshmallow?
Yet is there an answer? I mean, can I teach my students to focus? Imagine a student that has difficulty focusing for longer than 5-10 minutes. How is this student going to succeed in all of the trials that are ahead: the 4-hour marathon that is the SAT, 2+ hour long classes in college, multiple (and sometimes) massive reading assignments (for which there are no Cliff/Spark Notes), research papers, internships, and eventually a career? According to current research…it turns out that I, as their teacher at the high school level, have little impact on focus, self-discipline, and self-regulation. Self-regulation is a learned skill, but one learned at a very young age. However, cognitive scientists are working hard to discover ways that older students can be taught how to enhance their “executive functions” and self-discipline.
In this fascinating interview with Stuart Shanker, a professor of philosophy and psychology at York University, learning self-regulation is discussed.
Self-discipline is the “most important factor for success.” Check out this TED talk which explains the “marshmallow experiment.”
All of this is right on the cutting edge of educational neuroscience, so it’ll be a little while until it all filters down to practical suggestions for educators(especially at the secondary level like myself). If you are really interested in knowing more about the current research on willpower in a form that is understandable check out Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
Next time? Back to figuring out if we’d bit off more than we could chew with our Storifying Macbeth project…