The Challenge of Attention

See if you can read through this entire blog post without being distracted by e-mails, hyperlinks, instant messengers, or the phone in your pocket. 

I bet you can pretty easily, if you choose to. 

I also know most of the Stew readers are adults, many of whom raise similar questions of how the digital world is changing how attentive we are, how we consume and produce information, and how we communicate with others.  I also believe that many in the blogging community choose to focus their attention on longer–by digital age standards, at least–texts and essays. 

On the other hand, for students who have grown up in the digital world, capturing attention is a struggle, a currency, something us teachers and other adults can no longer take for granted.  This thoughtful piece by Principal Cale Birk addresses how the onus is on presenters and teachers to create more engaging lessons and presentations so the audience doesn’t feel the pull to check e-mail or Fantasy Football rosters.   Birk concludes, “Collectively, we have an obligation to engage those that we are teaching or working with.  To simply blame technology for students being ‘more distracted’ is both limp and counterproductive.  And by adopting this mindset, we will never succeed in getting the ‘full attention’ of anyone.”    I mostly agree with Birk and, as a teacher, I’m constantly trying to capture the currency of attention using a variety of techniques and activities.

However, I don’t believe Birk gives enough credit to how little self-control many students have when it comes to technology.  He writes, “We need to stop judging ‘young people’ and their being distracted, having short attention spans, or whatever other denigrating phraseology we can come up with about them being less engaged in classrooms across North America.”  I will judge students, but it’s also clear we need to teach meta-cognition to young people–heck, even adults–the Pavlovian response many of us have regarding digital distractions.

Check out the student comments left on this New York Times blog post:

Almost the whole time in class all i think about is “oh i wonder if he texted me back”. So I can honestly say it does get in the way of learning.

When i do have my phone on while im studying i constantly go on the internet or talk to my friends and then I end up forgetting what I studied because im more focused on my phone.

Technology has many uses when dealing with education. It is true that it can be distracting for some, but it offers so many resources at our finger tips.

I definitely think technology has shortened my attention span. When I am at home doing homework I constantly check my phone, Facebook, etc. On top of that when I come across a tough problem in Math I can easily Google it. I most likely spend hours in front of electronics every day. I catch myself day dreaming at school, thinking of what I am going to do on the internet when I get home.

Digital technology definitely does shorten my attention span because I get distracted with the web and texting. If I have work on the computer, I watch some types of shows while doing my work on the Internet. I waste more time texting my friends then doing my schoolwork.

I can honestly say that most technology is a distraction to me. I’m constantly on my computer, iPod, and phone. Saying that, I know that there is a time and place to use technology, and that’s most certainly not in class or when I’m doing my homework.

Technology can be very distracting when it is put in front of you as much as it is today. When you have smartphones and computers and all of these other types of fancy gadgets, it makes you forget about the original material you were taught in class. Technology can shorten kids attention span because they go from a quick-easy way on the internet to a long, descriptive class that involves more detail.

I think technology can be very distracting in a classroom. But if teachers don’t make their classes interesting, students will find another way to get distracted. For me my cellphone is very distracting if I feel it vibrate I immediately have to check who it is.

This is hardly a scientific study, but the majority of students who left comments admitted they are distracted and even addicted to their gadgets.  Yes, bored audiences and classrooms have always doodled, daydreamed, and passed notes.  But now it’s just so easy to disengage, with thousands of games, messages, and websites to address.    Do you worry about being disrespectful during meetings or presentations if you pull out your phone?  What does it take to fully engage you in the classroom or during a presentation?  Should we care, as a culture, about changing norms relating to attention?  Is it silly to worry about how today’s youth, and many adults, are incessantly connected and distracted? 


  1. Hey Marcus,
    I understand your perspective, but I think as adults who might have the attention-thing figured out, more or less, we have to be careful when teaching kids and using the tools available to us. I currently am annoyed by students in my digital media class, because, as usual, they have a really hard time focusing on editing their projects when they constantly jockey over to YouTube or Twitter. I don’t want to block the sites, but I might have to.
    I’ll have to check out the productivity clock.

  2. Thanks for commenting Rebecca! Being the same age as you, I completely agree with your perspective. I don’t feel short-changed at all to have grown up on the cusp of the information and connectivity onslaught–I think it’s more of a challenge for teachers and students today to capture attention and figure out what the best tools are for teaching and learning.

  3. This is a tough topic for me (mainly because it doesn’t bother me).

    As a teacher I expect attention and participation in the lesson. It is the ground rule. However, students check text messages throughout the period whether it is in my lesson or the class activity. I never draw attention to it unless it begins to significantly distract the student or the students around them.

    In a case where a student checks a message and is quickly back on task, I have no problems in that instance. It is only when disruptions are prolonged that I take issue with lack of concentration.

    I personally have no problem being attentive and responsible for myself when I am in a meeting or listening to a lecture. So I am generally irritated when I feel like I am being policed for something I can control. I have been known to ignore the “Turn in Cell Phones” sign at testing locations and it has never been a problem…my phone is off and in my pocket. I never pull it out until I am safely in my own car.

    But while reading on the internet it is normal for me to have 5-10 tabs open. So I am easily distracted and it is tougher to focus. A productivity clock is sometimes helpful for me.

    It is crucial that your students know and understand your expectations upfront.

    It is also crucial to know your students…are they capable and mature enough to handle those small freedoms?

  4. I was completing my undergraduate studies when sites such as Facebook were just emerging. At that time I viewed the internet more as a resource for educational purposes, not really an onslaught of distraction. Now in graduate school, I find that I can lose focus very easily while doing homework, as I now view the internet not just as an educational resource, but also a place to waste time. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be a child or young adult today, where quick access to so many technological products is omnipresent.

    -Rebecca 🙂

  5. Absolutely! We should worry greatly about the obsession with portable electronics. They should not be allowed in the classroom. Even the best classroom teacher is no competition for the ipod. Sq

  6. Interesting technique with the seminar. I mostly took literature/humanities seminar classes during undergrad that required close reading of hard copy texts, and it’s hard for me to imagine having much use for my cell phone in this setting.

  7. Sounds like you’ve got some decent norms established–that’s a big part of this discussion as well. During faculty meetings, sometimes many teachers, including myself once in while–I’ll admit it–get out their phones. Largely because norms haven’t been clearly established.

  8. Here at our University faculty employ several methods to assist students with technology distractions.

    In one of our larger classes (1200 students), there is a no technology zone, it is in the front of the auditorium, no phones and computers are allowed for note taking, but not for “surfing”. Students can sit and the back of the auditorium and do what they want with technology, with the exception of talking on cell phones.

    In seminar classes, faculty use the technology to their advantage by having students actively search and report during class. If your computer or phone are visible then you are fair game to be called upon to find and report on questions the faculty may ask you. This discourages random surfing as you might be called upon to find something and if you are not paying attention. This could prove to be embarrassing, if you ask the faculty to repeat the question.

    We also have a couple of faculty who use Twitter as a back channel for conversations around the subject at hand. This is monitored by a TA.

    In my personal teaching, I try and include technology in my teaching, sometimes it can still be a distraction, but as you pointed out so can doodling, day dreaming and note passing.

  9. “Do you worry about being disrespectful during meetings or presentations if you pull out your phone?”

    Whenever I deliver the training (in-house, public) and lecturing (to students, teachers, lecturers), I always explain that “we” have the rule of the game that everyone in the classroom or training venue should follow. It’s explained after the introduction session ends.
    The convention is that everyone should keep their mobile devices, including mobile phones of course, in the silent mode. Not only that, if they are expecting urgent call then they have to notify me as the training lead, and pick up their phones outside the venue.

    What does it take to fully engage you in the classroom or during a presentation?
    – Interesting lecture or presentation in the sense that the contents are in for me (beneficiary aspects)
    – Engaging way of its delivery by the lecturer or the presenter by involving majority of attendees or participants
    – Turn-off or put it in silent mode of all electronic devices I bring inside the room or venue unless it’s requested and needed

  10. Thanks Greg!
    Look forward to reading your post. Will it even be worth attempting to present or teach in-person if the new norm becomes “get my attention if you can?”
    The whole etiquette thing bothers me a bit too.

  11. Nice post Paul. I too have been paying attention to the two articles you alluded to in your piece. I’m actually working on a post similar to yours. So thanks for taking care of that for me.

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