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Are Attention Spans Getting Shorter?

Are Attention Spans Getting Shorter? featured image

I am a great fan of TED Talks, the phenomenon that started in Silicon Valley, where experts in whatever field give pithy presentations to a studio audience challenging our preconceptions about the world. Particularly inspiring talks are often shared via social media, and I find myself drawn to them, attracted by the prospect of hearing something interesting without necessarily having to listen to an hour-long lecture. Indeed, several of my blogs have been inspired by such talks. Naturally, the algorithms that govern such things know that my business is education, and my social media feeds are full of pedagogical musings. Several weeks ago, my attention was grabbed by a presentation given by American Child Psychologist, Angela Hanscom, on how children are ‘less teachable’ in primary schools than was the case 30 years ago. Not only have pupils’ attention spans reduced, but also their lack of spatial awareness proves problematic in an environment where dozens of bodies are in close proximity. To what can this be attributed?

You might suspect that screen addition would be blamed. Dr Hanscom believes that this is a reason, but she stresses that this is just part of a trend for over-stimulation in modern families. Since the time when we were children, human beings seem to have become averse to boredom. I have written previously in praise of boredom citing that the need for a child to actively seek out something to do is a spark for creativity. However, we organise structured activities for our children to a much greater extent than the generation before. We are happy to pay for soft play (when small), for an art activity or for our child to join a sports club. I understand that childcare needs play a role – we need somebody to look after our children when work calls – but I wonder if we are subject also to the expectations of society. Will others look down on us in the competition to prepare our children adequately for life if we don’t enrol them in these stimulating opportunities?

The psychologist’s argument is that reduction in unstructured physical activity leaves children less in control of their bodies and more likely to fidget and thereby to lose concentration. She sees modern parents restricting the ‘movement opportunities’ for young children. Do children have the chance to roll down hills, twirl around making themselves dizzy and fall over, or climb trees? We are certainly less likely to use public parks. I remember walking the 300 yards to the recreation ground at the end of my suburban road at 8 or 9 years old with my next door neighbour, but I would have been very reluctant to let my children do the same without my supervision. Our perception of risk has certainly changed (if not necessarily the reality). I therefore had the opportunity to be flung around a roundabout at frighteningly but thrillingly high speed, and to climb over the seesaw learning for the first time about pivots and moments. However, I’m pretty certain I would have told my over-supervised children at the same age to sit down on the seat and ‘play nicely’! A garden can provide the answer, but the reality is that fewer families have the space, not least as modern housing developments maximise profit by keeping gardens to postage-stamp dimensions.

Dr Hanscom sees children as frustrated. As humans, we let out our frustrations effectively through physicality. I know that a run helps me to decompress from the stresses of the working day, before having to re-engage in the evenings. Children have more expensive, higher-tech toys that ever before, but spend less time outside, and less time in the company of other children than was the case with earlier generations. She bemoans how schools have exacerbated these home life trends by reducing the length of break times. I know that the lunch break in many local schools is as short as 30 minutes. In many secondary schools, break is kept deliberately short to help manage pupils’ behaviour. The less time children spend interacting at break time, the less the chance of conflict. I have always felt that this recent trend in schools is very sad. At the Grammar School, our 75 minutes lunch time is long. I should stress that this is not merely a reflection of the time taken to feed over 1000 boys and staff! We seek to schedule as many clubs and activities at lunch time, conscious of the fact that half of the school needs to leave school promptly at 4 pm in order to use the coach services to return home. However, I also love to see boys playing their unstructured games on the fields, and we know that learning can be less effective in the afternoon when they have been cooped up inside, as has been the case during the recent poor weather.

Although much of what I am describing above refers to early primary-aged children, I still think that we need to be wary of over-stimulation with our older boys. One of the reasons why I rate learning a musical instrument is because it helps to develop concentration. A boy practising an instrument is alone with his thoughts, and acquiring the ability to sustain his concentration for a half-hour period of practice by gradually linking together rehearsal techniques. It’s the same with revision. Although our sons may need some help initially in structuring their revision or music practice, we need to have the confidence gradually to leave them to their own devices as they get older, in order to develop independence. And let’s not neglect their need to have an outlet for their physicality: mens sana in corpore sano.