I spent this past summer traveling around several countries in western Europe. I spent hours at a time on trains listening to Audible books. On some days, I literally spent over eight hours listening to audiobooks like Why the West Rules - for Now that span over 25 hours in total length. That sort of attention span was quite easy to maintain. For the most part, it was effortless. I had nothing else to do, but stare out the windows of the train at stunning scenery or try to nap when tired.
The previous summer, I spent most of my time at home while my wife was back in California with friends and family. Summers at home can be similar to train traveling in that when you live overseas and work at an international school, most people you know are gone and there simply isn’t much to do. During that time, I also read for hours at a time, but because I had the internet and a laptop, I was also able to write several thousand words per day as well.
Since these long hours of concentration were able to be sustained two summers in a row, back to back, I’ve noticed this year that about two months into the school year my ability to concentrate starts eroding. My attention span seems to evaporate as school gets into full-swing.
I don’t think that this same experience two years in a row is a coincidence. I’m beginning to think that school itself is corrosive of attention. I first noticed this a couple of weeks ago when I had some time to catch up on reading and, instead of opening a long book, decided to open up several tabs and check various feeds. Checking these can be done quickly, in bite-sized chunks, and a small sense of accomplishment can be had because something is finished in its entirety.
Why might school bias us toward these types of activities instead of the longer, book-length type activities? Because everything is done in 10-80 minute blocks with small time remainders. We often find ourselves with five minutes to spare, or 25 minutes to spare between blocks of school activities. What can be done, both in the sense of “doing” and “completion” that done implies, in those short periods of time? In the world of the internet, we can consume little chunks of media.
These provide us with both the sense of doing something and of finishing something and therefore leaves us feeling good. Starting a chapter that might take an hour to finish, only to stop ten minutes later is frustrating to the point of irritation. The alternative of doing nothing in those small blocks is available, but this often leaves us feeling unproductive, as though we “wasted time”, something we are trained to disdain from early childhood in a world that values productivity.
All of this leaves me with the impression that the time structure of school is actually causing most of the attentional problems so many adults love to blame on digital devices and social media. Hardly a day goes by without me seeing something posted about the ill-effects these are having on children, but what if we’re wrong? What if rather than the devices and media being bad for our children, it’s the frenetic schedules and activity switching we force upon them? What if the device and media usage is actually just a coping mechanism, a way for kids who don’t understand what is happening to take some control back over their lives and a sense of accomplishment and productivity?
There is a chance that we have this all backwards, that digital tools aren’t destroying attention and rewiring brains, but acting as forms of escapism and self-medication in a system that constantly scrambles kids’ attention and rarely leaves them feeling done or complete with anything. Attention requires self-control and this is rewarded when we accomplish something at the end. However, most classes are just revolving blocks of attention with little reward, besides perhaps a “B” grade every couple of weeks.
I know that personally, after just two months of being back on a school schedule, I find myself using the same tools I used all summer for totally different purposes. Clearly, my ability to focus and concentrate didn’t change because of the access to digital tools - what changed was my submersion into a schedule that suddenly required 20 different activities a day in short timeframes with quick task-switching. When given the time, space, and ability to breathe, I can turn my concentration back on without a problem, but when squeezed, it goes out the window.
Perhaps if we want kids to demonstrate extended attention and concentration, we should just give the time to do so, with projects that have clearly felt rewards at the end. The subjective reward is important. Even if the end of sustained attention is an “A” on some test, it will only be psychologically rewarding if the student cares to begin with. That’s why kids, just like adults, can devote hours of attention to other non-school projects like improving sporting ability or playing video games. The end comes with a clear accomplishment that is subjectively rewarding.
If I can have my attention quickly eroded for structural reasons, even when being paid within that structure, then it’s no wonder kids are struggling. Maybe we ought to stop blaming everyone but ourselves and think about how we can support them, both in system structures and in finding work that is subjectively interesting and results in a sense of accomplishment at its end. Then, perhaps, students won’t be using all their incredible tools to escape, but to create and produce projects of meaning that just might amaze us adults as well.