They live in a state of perpetual, endless distraction, and, for many parents and educators, it’s a source of real concern. Will future generations be able to finish a whole book? Will they be able to sit through an entire movie without checking their phones? Are we raising a generation of impatient brats?
Been there, done that, you yawn. But in actuality the article isn’t rehashing these old ideas but is rebutting them in a refreshing new way. Duke professor Cathy Davidson (no relation) has written a book called Now You See It: How Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, in which she argues that “much of the panic about children’s shortened attention spans isn’t just misguided, it’s harmful.” That’s not to say that Davidson believes in multitasking:
[W]hen we pay attention to one thing, it means we’re not paying attention to something else. When we’re multitasking, what we’re actually really doing is what Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention.” We’re not actually simultaneously paying equal attention to two things: One of the things that we’re doing is probably being done automatically, and we’re sort of cruising through that, and we’re paying more attention to the other thing. Or we’re moving back and forth between them.
I particularly like her remarks on the common view that our brains develop more neurons as we get older:
We used to think that as we get older we develop more neural pathways, but the opposite is actually the case. You and I have about 40 percent less neurons than a newborn infant does. A baby pays attention to everything. You’ve probably witnessed this — if there are shadows in the ceiling or sand blades are making peculiar patterns, we adults don’t recognize that, but it can be utterly mesmerizing to a child. They learn what not to pay attention to over and over and over again, and learn what to pay attention to, and that makes for neural pathways that are very efficient. They’re what we tend to call reflexes or automatic behaviors, because we’ve done them so many times we don’t pay attention to them anymore. As an adult, you feel distracted when you learn something new and you can’t depend on those automatic responses or automatic reflexes that have been streamlined neurally over a lifetime of use.
One reason why I liked that passage was that it resonated with one of my favorite quotations: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This observation, written by Alfred North Whitehead one hundred years ago, seems to fly in the face of what we teachers always say — students should think before they speak or write — but that’s what makes it so appealing. In fact, what we want is for students to think about the big things but to be automatic about the little things. If you have to think what 2x + 3x is whenever you do an algebra problem, you’ll never be able to pay attention to the Big Ideas.
Here are two more quotations, which I’ll give without comment, since you really should just read the entire article:
[on multiple-choice tests] How do you teach a kid to be able to make a sound judgment about what is and what isn’t reliable information? How do you synthesize that into a coherent position that allows you to make informed decisions about your life? In other words, all of those things we think of as school were shaped for a vision of work and productivity and adulthood that was very much an industrial age of work, productivity and adulthood. We now have a pretty different idea of work, productivity and adulthood, but we’re still teaching people using the same institutionalized forms of education.
[on points and grading]
There are all these really stunning computer scientists that are just frustrated as heck about how badly we’re training scientists. And many of them feel that A,B,C,D and numeric grades are disincentives to exactly the kind of inductive thinking, creative thinking that is the scientific method. Top Coder is the world’s most important certification system for people who are doing open Web development around the world, and they’ve come up with an incredibly complex badging system, where if I’m working with you on code and I see you’re doing a great job, it’s part of my job as a member of the Top Coding community to give somebody points. So if I think you’re doing a great job solving some problem in C++ that I can’t see a solution to, I might give you 20 points. If I’m a third developer, and I say I really need somebody who can help me with some really complicated stuff on C++ , and I see you have a badge with 1,000 points on it on your website, I can click on your badge and it will give me in minute and excruciating detail how you earned every one of those points. There are now a group of computer scientists who are working together to see if we can’t come up with ways that textbooks — particularly online and interactive textbooks; there’ve been some wonderful ones for algebra, for example — could be based on testing that works in some similar way, where a teacher would give you points for succeeding at a problem, where you would automatically get points for getting the correct answer. You wouldn’t even worry about giving negative points because it doesn’t matter; all you do is get points when you do something well. Even saying that is a conceptual breakthrough. When I told my students that we don’t have to worry about trolls and criticism, all we have to do is make really sound, conscientious, articulate judgments about positive things, it was as if a cloud opened.