Jim Lang

Professor at Assumption College

Distracted Minds: Why Your Students Can’t Focus

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Image: Punch Magazine

In 1906 the British satirical magazine Punch published a series of cartoons entitled “Forecasts for 1907.” One of them featured two nattily dressed Edwardians sitting beneath a tree in London’s Hyde Park, with telegraph machines on each of their laps. They face away from one another, their attention wholly absorbed by the devices. “These two figures are not communicating with one another,” the caption reads. “The lady is receiving an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.”

It’s impossible to see that cartoon without calling to mind contemporary photos of people glued to their cellphones as they walk across the campus or sit around the dinner table. Usually those photos are accompanied by ironic commentary on how people today “are not communicating with one another” because they are so absorbed by their glowing screens.

The deeper concern that animates such images — whether from 1906 or 2020 — is that our personal devices are eroding our ability to pay attention: to one another, to our work and study, and to the world around us. We seem to believe that at one time in human history, we lived in a state of prelapsarian attentional grace, in which we could spend long hours engaged in deep conversation or focused on a single task. Then new technologies came along and turned us into shallow creatures who grasp continuously for novelty and stimulation.

But the most cursory review of the history of distraction shows there never was such an attentional Garden of Eden. Complaints about our distractible minds began at least as far back as antiquity, and have been piling up ever since.

“People who are passionately devoted to the flute,” wrote Aristotle more than 2,300 years ago in Ethics, “are unable to pay attention to arguments if they hear someone playing a flute, since they enjoy the flute-playing more than the activity that presently occupies them.” Aristotle notes here how easily we can be diverted from a challenging task into one we find more pleasurable.

Two millennia later, the English poet and clergyman John Donne went a step further to point out that even things with no connection to pleasure — such as random noises or intrusive thoughts — can distract our attention from our intended area of focus:

 

I throw myself downe in my Chamber, and call in, and invite God and his Angels thither; and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a Flie, for the rattling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore … A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a feare of tomorrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer.

 

But my favorite distracted mind comes from a few centuries later, in the title character of E.M. Delafield’s 1930 novel The Provincial Lady in London, who offers this description of her efforts to pay attention to the proceedings of a literary conference:

 

Literary Conference takes place in the morning. … Am sorry to find attention wandering on several occasions to entirely unrelated topics, such as Companionate Marriage, absence of radiators in Church at home, and difficulty in procuring ice. Make notes on back of visiting-card, in order to try and feel presence at Conference in any way justified. Find these again later, and discover that they refer to purchase of picture-postcards for Robin and Vicky, memorandum that blue evening dress requires a stitch before it can be worn again, and necessity for finding out whereabouts of Messrs. Thos. Cook & Son, in case I run short of money.

 

The human mind has always been troubled by the problem of distraction. It seems to besiege us from all sides. It can come in the form of pleasant diversions such as flute-playing (or checking Twitter), in the form of external intrusions like rattling coaches (or buzzing iPhones), or in the form of a mind worried about household responsibilities (or obsessed with a coming election).

What I find most striking in the descriptions of distractible minds — past and present — is the fact that they are laments: Not only have we always been distracted; we have always been unhappy about it. We want to listen to arguments, participate in conferences, and focus our thoughts in study or prayer, but our attention seems ever-inclined to diversion.

We might more easily reconcile ourselves to our distractible brains if we understood the positive benefits they have conferred on us in our long human history. For one thing, we learn from biologists and neuroscientists that a distractible brain has a role to play in survival. Most animals need a brain with dual powers: an ability to focus and an ability to remain alert and aware of their surroundings.

Envision a bird pecking for seeds against a speckled background, as the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist invites us to do in one of his animated lectures. The bird has to focus on its task in order to find seeds — but focusing too intensely on that search leaves it vulnerable to predators. Its very survival depends upon its ability to be distracted from its focus and notice a predator closing in.

But many animals — primates in particular — are further driven from their singular focus by curiosity. Over our long evolutionary history, we have been continuously rewarded by distracting ourselves with questions like: What’s going on over there? What would happen if I did it like this instead? What on earth is that?

The more we asked those kinds of questions, and lost ourselves down rabbit holes of distraction, the more likely we were to discover new ways of making our lives easier and more interesting — which still holds true today. The hunger for new ideas, information, and experiences drove us into cooking with fire long ago, as it drives us into space today.

It’s that same hunger that pushes us toward tech devices, which have been strategically developed to play on our curious brains. So it’s important to acknowledge that — while our brains have always been liable to distraction — today’s technology poses heightened challenges. It’s wrong to present distraction as some new aspect of the human condition, but it’s equally wrong to think nothing has changed in the history of attention and distraction.

What has changed is the sophistication with which corporations today play on our distractible natures. The makers of our phones and apps have done the research and spent the money to understand how best to capture public attention: Provide us with a continuous stream of new information. Your phone does this with graceful ease. Check your email first. When that’s tapped out, switch to Twitter. Bored by Twitter? Try Instagram. By the time you’re done there, you have more email.

The combination of a portable, information-providing device and an information-seeking brain can be lethal to sustained attention. Faced with the prospect of boredom, unpleasant experiences, or challenging cognitive work (such as what we do in higher education), we find it very difficult to resist the temptation of our modern devices.

But not impossible.

Despite the steep challenge posed by today’s devices, we all would be able to cite examples of people — ourselves and our students — who manage sustained attention on a regular basis. We become absorbed by movies and television shows, we pursue hobbies and sports, we take walks in the woods, we read books, we play video and board games, we engage in meaningful conversations over meals. We are capable of focusing our attention when the circumstances are right.

What that means for college faculty members trying to keep students’ attention is that the circumstances have to be right in the classroom. For too long teachers have thought about attention as the norm, and distraction as the deviation from the norm. Both history and biology teach us that the opposite is true. Periods of sustained attention are like islands rising from the ocean of distraction in which we spend most of our time swimming.

Attention should, thus, be considered an achievement, not something we take for granted in the classroom.

Good teaching involves paying attention to attention, which serves as a foundation for all acts of learning. “Without attention,” explains the cognitive psychologist Michelle Miller, “much of what we want students to accomplish — taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills — simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity.”

Over the course of the next few months, I will use this space to offer my recommendations for how faculty members can take that essential first step to make attention a priority in their classrooms. I will focus on strategies for cultivating attention that faculty members can use in both face-to-face and online courses, drawing from my forthcoming book on the role of attention and distraction in the college classroom. We’ll take lessons from playwrights and poets, from the scholars who study human attention, and from creative teachers in many different disciplines.

I can’t promise you that any single approach I describe will cause your students to pay rapt attention for 90 minutes. The challenges we face in helping them sustain their attention in the classroom are difficult. But I can assure you that you are more likely to succeed — in both promoting learning and reducing distraction — if you make attention a value in your teaching.

If you want attention to matter to your students, it first has to matter to you.

 

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