Posted by: Barinas | October 6, 2012

The Attention Battle

This week I was part of a presentation on ADHD, and through the course of my research a question always seemed to bubble over:  Is today’s technology partly responsible for students’ general lack of attention?  First of all, let me clarify that by no means I am implying that technology is directly responsible for the rise of ADHD among students of all grade levels.  In fact, there is an ongoing debate as to whether ADHD is being overdiagnosed, and scholars believe that there are both internal and external factors that may cause the disorder (the perennial nature vs. nurture debate).

What I want to point out is that as I was studying ADHD, I was reminded about the other debate that revolves around the use of technology in the classroom.  This debate centers on whether today’s digital culture is in fact shortening children’s attention span.  According to the CDC, only 3%-7% of school children have ADHD.  By contrast, a lot of parents believe that short attention spans affect a much larger percent of school children.  I thus began to wonder if there are external factors that even though are not directly responsible for Attention Deficit Disorder, may foster milder forms or worse, exacerbate the condition for those who already have it.

There are those who are quick to blame smart phones and other forms of mobile technology as the prime culprit behind children’s short attention spans.  Whether it is TV, Iphones, the Internet or whatever gadget comes to mind, they are constantly pulling children’s attention in all different directions.  Every five to ten minutes there is a new post, tweet, link, trend, hashtag or thread worth perusing.  Someone said that “nowadays ten year olds have laptops, iPads, iPods, smartphones, Facebook, and Twitter, whereas back then, all I had was ten years of age”.  Hmmm… is it right to think that this technology is causing more harm than good when it comes to staying focused on school?

I believe that in certain instances, there might be some truth to that, but I for one am not inclined to take a blanket opinion.  I believe I am in the majority when I say that it is better to see both sides of the equation.  On one side, some instructors say that students have changed.  In the past, you can give a one-hour lecture without a problem.  Students remained focused on the lecturer without batting an eye.  No one placed his head on the desk, stared blankly at the window, or periodically glanced towards a mobile device.  The instructor could command students’ attention without having to resort to streaming video, interactive whiteboards, fancy props, and the like.  Now it appears that educators must compete for their students’ attention as if it were a tug-of-war between them and portable media.  Compared to previous generations, students are apparently more likely to get distracted.

On the flip side, many people question whether shorter attention spans should be our main point of concern.  Students are less attentive, so what?  Is this something new?  In fact, how do we know whether students from decades past were really paying attention?  They might have been “paying attention”, as in keeping their eyes locked on the speaker, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were actively thinking about the lecture.  There is, after all, a difference between hearing and listening.  Perhaps the presence of mobile media is finally bringing to light the fact that students have never really been constantly paying attention.  Back then there were only rubber bands, paper airplanes, and doodling, but now that we have more sophisticated competitors inside the classroom, instructors are finally on the spot to take their rhetoric and presentation skills to the next level.  In the end, I believe that we need more research about memorization, cognition, and other brain functions before we choose which side of the fence to take.

In the meantime, what are we to do?  There is a funny Spanish proverb that says “camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente”.  Roughly speaking, it means that the shrimp that “falls asleep” gets carried away by the current.  So are we going to stay idle while this debate continues to unfold?  I say let’s get up and move!  As we have learned so far in class, technology is a tool that depending on the user, can lead to either good or bad results.  I like how in class we are learning about distraction-blocking software (for both Windows and Mac) and other ways by which we can stayed focused.  It is our responsibility as instructors to pass these lessons to our students, so that students are using technology more for educational development as opposed to time-wasting opportunities.  Perhaps most importantly, educators must master how to use technology in engaging ways so that students focus on the technology that we are using to teach, rather than the ones they brought for fun.

We need to step up our game, but also ensure that there is a level playing field.  So I just want to put out a couple of questions that are worth considering.  What are the most appropriate rules with regard to portable media in the classrooms?  Should internet filters be more restrictive? (ex. only allow education-related websites).  The corporate world uses strong firewalls like Barracuda to ensure employee productivity, so should school districts take a step in the same direction?  If I remember well, I believe that Karen and Todd have touched upon the subject of cell phone policy in the classroom and about the distractions that gadgets pose for us.  It is important that as future educators we both continue this line of questioning and also become more tech-savvy.  That way when our number is called, we are better prepared to win the attention battle in the classroom.  In other words, let our technology hold more sway than theirs.



  1. You hit the target with this one, Pedro. This post (other than being very well-written, I must add) sparked a few questions I have of my own in regards to technology as a distraction. (As a matter of fact, I have checked my Facebook at least five times in between reading other posts). But I think you are right–it would be wrong and unfair to say that growing media distractions have an impact on or are somehow involved in ADHD diagnoses, without better evidence from research. However, you transition into the more prevalent problem at hand–competing for our student’s attention. And the word “competition” seems very appropriate here; I know that as a student myself, it is very easy to get off track. I think that you are right in saying that as educators we need to be addressing the problems that we can tackle while science is figuring out the rest. How do we minimize media distractions and optimize learning? The sites that we have been learning about in class are great, and I know that as a teacher they will be very helpful. However, I have to ask whether using sites like these, or firewalls like Barracuda that you mentioned, are really addressing the issue? It almost feels like we are just side-stepping the real problem–teaching students how to prioritize, focus, and problem-solve. Sure, distraction-blocking software could be very useful with a younger age audience (elementary to middle school), but once a student reaches high school, don’t you think that we should be teaching them how to manage media distractions on their own? In college, there is no distraction-blocking software to be found, I am sure. The same goes for most workplaces. It is a skill or mindset that you obtain as you mature and understand how to prioritize. But how do you teach this skill? Well, that’s a pretty good question. I’m not really sure–in fact, it seems this idea of mine has just sparked more questions from me. Is it something that you can “teach” necessarily? Or is it something that each student just has to learn on their own? In either case, I think that it is important to keep in mind that teachers blocking the distractions for students, although effective and helpful, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are teaching students how to prioritize their focus, it just means that we are doing it for them. What do you think? Do you have any suggestions on how we might help our students learn this skill? Do you even think that that is our job to teach them this skill? I am interested to hear what other people think about this!

    • Wow Kaitlin, this is a great comment! You bring up an excellent point about how far we should go when it comes to limiting student access to the internet and other devices that may pose a distraction. This is undoubtedly a great question to consider, and you share some thought-provoking perspectives!

      I agree with your point of view that once in high school, students should be given some responsibility to control their own use of portable media. If we block everything, then they are ill-prepared to avoid distractions on their own once they enter college or the workforce. But at the same time, I also fear that as more easily-distracted college students fail to adapt to the rigors of academic life, and dropout rates continue to climb, colleges will begin to “loosen” the academic responsibilities that are part of today’s college life in order to hand-hold students towards graduation. That would eventually deteriorate the quality of our higher education compared to other industrialized nations. An 2012 article from Reuters ( reports that the US has the highest college dropout rates amongst industrialized nations.

      Isn’t that scary? It makes me think about what to do if I come across a high school senior who instead of using the school laptop to finish his chemistry homework, decides to kill time by reading sports articles on Some would say that he’s 17 years old, and by now he’s old and mature enough to take responsibility over his time management and keep online distractions to a minimum. Blocking the website would only lead him to squander even more time online when he gets the freedom to do whatever he wants in college.

      On the other hand, some people would prefer that the site be blocked, so that he finishes his homework. They will apply a connection between setting a firewall to protect high school students from chronic time-wasting distractions just as we have legislation against underage drinking to stem teenage alcoholism. And just as students are allowed to drink as much as they want once they hit 21, so do they have the freedom to browse at their heart’s desire once they leave high school.

      In the meantime, students can be rewarded with “unblocked internet time” based on their academic performance and after having gone through workshops on how to effectively manage portable media distractions.

      Clearly, there are even more sides to this issue, and we are just scratching the surface. Determining how much autonomy we should grant high schoolers over the use of electronic media within high schools is a very important issue, and I am glad that you shared it with us, Kaitlin. It will take a lot of research and multidisciplinary studies to determine what should be the best course of action.

  2. Wow… so many important ideas here. I just want to pose a few questions regarding learning that relate to the first part of your post, Pedro.
    1. Does “attention” = learning?
    2. Was sitting still and listening for long periods of time ever “best practice” in regard to effective pedagogy and learning theory?
    3. When we focus on effective teaching without considering learning, are we fooling ourselves?
    4. Is student attention in the traditional sense more about compliance than it is about engagement?
    5. When teachers have students who are not compliant with their passive, teaching-centered pedagogy, is that sometimes interpreted as attention deficit rather than pedagogy deficit?

    I know – too many questions. I don’t expect you to try and answer them all, and I think you allude to all of these issues in your post. In an age where information and our access to it is no longer scarce and opportunity to socialize, share, publish, produce,… has increased exponentially [outside of school], is it any wonder that students are less compliant with more traditional learning? Poverty and family/home environment has certainly something to do with this as well. I’d hedge a bet that my own children are far more compliant than others who have less home stability, parental involvement, and economic prosperity. When we look at US rankings with other global developed nations, we see that the US is nowhere near the top of high performing nations, yet tops the list in terms of poverty. When the poverty factor is controlled for, we would indeed be much closer to the top of these lists in terms of performance. Here’s a thought-provoking article to read if you are interested.

    Great questions to be wrestling with. It’s never simple or cut and dried. Don’t let anyone convince you that there is a single cause (like technology) for any such problems. You’re final conclusions are right on.

  3. And, here are a few more worthy reads on this achievement global topic


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