Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talking and Attention

This is a somewhat rambling post, where I am thinking about kids' talking and issues regarding attention. 

The class I subbed for yesterday had book buddies, so I had a chance to talk to another teacher while the older kids ( my class) read to and with the younger ones (her class).  Somewhere in our conversation, the topic turned to the differences over the years in the kids in classes.  Both of us observed that kids now seem to have tremendous difficulty really LISTENING.  She said that they seem to feel the need for constant noise around them - music, activity, talking to themselves.  I hadn't noticed it in this way, but I do notice that kids seem to talk nearly continuously.  And, although I have posted on this topic before, I am still wondering WHY.  Why do kids feel the need to talk so much at school?  Is it something we are doing - or not doing - as teachers?  Is it the nature of school?  Is it natural and only now becoming so much in evidence, because there are so many students in the classroom or because the consequences of constant chatter aren't enough to deter it?

First of all, let me say that even the students seem to be aware that they cannot do some of their work well when people around them are talking all of the time.  This seems to be more apparent in subjects where the nature of the work is completely independent effort, e.g., writing.  But even knowing this, kids who feel the desire to talk don't or can't inhibit their talking if they themselves feel the desire to do so.  They know that if someone else talks, they get distracted, but if they talk, they seem to feel it is needed or justifiable. 

Further interesting examples of this are often seen in the computer labs.  Kids are working independently on projects or simply different choices of math games.  They are chattering constantly.  In spite of the fact that each student is most interested in their own activity, they are talking to other students all of the time.  And the other students sometimes are listening.  I know there have been many studies that show that people can't actually multi-task - that they are actually just switching focus back and forth, but students seem to be faster at it than the studies would seem to point out.  Are kids better/faster at switching focus?  Does it depend on the level of focus necessary? 

I know I can think of other things when I am swimming.  I know that I can do fractions in different number bases while I swim.  But, one thing I can't do when I swim is focus on a word-intensive task at the same time that I am swimming.  I can think about topics using words, but I can't create word-related things while swimming, i.e., I can't work on the lyrics to a song that I am writing.  So the depth of focus does matter - at least to me. 

The other part of the problem is hearing what is said.  I have noticed that many students require multiple repetition of simple directions, e.g., "Open your books to page 81."  Some, like me, are very visually oriented and will not need further assistance if the page number is also posted on the board.  Others seem to ignore both verbal and visual presentations and need multiple references to them both before they can complete the task.  It is as though they have to go through several layers of attention.  First they have to be aware that they are being asked to stop whatever they are currently doing.  That takes several attempts.  Then they have to be aware that they are being asked to do something else.  Then they need to shift their attention to thinking about what they are being asked to do.  But then the attention seems to shift back to their previous task and they have to think about what they were doing and what they need to do to end that.  They have now completely forgotten about p. 81 in the book and need several more reminders in order to get back to that.  This sequence seems to be repeated for some students every time there is a new directive given.  And, all of the while, some of them are still talking. 

Quite a while ago, I read an article telling college professors not to lecture so much and to break up lectures into smaller chunks.  I can't actually imaging lecturing to students the way I was lectured to when I was in college.   Most of the classes I had were around 50 or 60 minutes and the teacher would lecture for a large part of the time.  In recent years, lectures have gotten much shorter and have been augmented with discussions, demonstrations, working of problems, etc.  Even the MOOCs (online courses) that I have taken have been broken up into videos that last between 6 and 18 minutes (at most).  Most are around 10 to 12 minutes long. 

What has happened to our attention spans?  What has happened to the depth of our attention? 

Many things to think about.

1 comment:

  1. As a hs teacher, I have lots of thoughts on this but mostly: students are used to collaborating with one another. They live in a connected wired world and that is what their workplaces will look like, too. Our teaching needs to reach into their reality, not ours. (I'm a babyboomer) Chunking 44 minute classes into three separate activities makes sense, and in my experience, does not diminish the quality of the sandwich - just how you are slicing and delivering it.