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Are We Surrendering Too Easily to Digital Distractions?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Focus Fracas” by Frank Furedi in The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 11, 2015 (Vol. LXII, #15, p. B12-B13).
In this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Furedi (University of Kent, England) says many U.S. college professors believe that digital devices have made today’s students so distracted, fragmented, and unfocused that they can’t be expected to read books all the way through. Sadly, he says, “reading is not seen as a cause worth fighting for. Academics who ought to know better have accepted the idea that students no longer possess the attention span required to read a book. Such claims serve as justifications for adopting a narrow, instrumental attitude toward reading… [but this] merely intensifies the problem that it is meant to avoid: intellectually switched-off students will become seriously distracted.”
Furedi believes we’re suffering from historical amnesia: “Since the invention of writing, people have warned about its supposedly harmful effects.” Socrates believed that writing would weaken students’ memories. Seneca said that reading too many authors and books would make people “disoriented and weak.” The advent of mass-market publications in the 1700s caused some commentators to panic, blaming Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther for a wave of copycat suicides. There was talk of “bibliomania,” “book madness,” “reading rage,” and “reading mania” – that somehow the unrestrained lust for fiction would cause readers to lose control of their lives. In the 1900s, William James devoted an entire chapter of The Principles of Psychology to the issue of distraction, and in a 1903 essay, Georg Simmel worried about the “intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli” in the modern urban environment, leading to a style of studied inattentiveness. In the 20th century, television caused great angst among cultural theorists, and most recently, Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation, frets about the current generation of young people fixated on their digital devices.
“The distraction debate reflects an anxiety about how to gain the attention of students,” says Furedi. “At the very least, a historical perspective should make us wonder if the apparent decline of attention is a technological or cultural issue. In previous centuries, people sought distraction by reading novels. Today the concern is that people have become distracted from reading itself.” The claim is that digitally savvy students are so afflicted by the “hyper attention” style of digital devices that they’re incapable of deep attention to extended reading in the humanities.
If this is true, says Furedi, it makes sense to change the classroom to fit today’s students. “Demands for getting rid of lectures, written essays, and the serious reading of books are justified on the grounds that education needs to be reorganized around the cognitive styles of young people,” he says. “In some classrooms, texting or browsing online during lectures is represented as a form of educational research.”
But Furedi doesn’t buy this logic. “Such attempts to hold the attention of students with gadgets simply evade an age-old problem,” he says. “Gaining attention has always involved a struggle of ideas and ideals… Captivating content always trumps distraction. In the end, what motivates students is not the availability of fancy gadgets but the quality of the content in their education… Literacy comes into its own when people read what matters to them… Instead of blaming our supposed Age of Distraction or turning the lecture hall into a digital playpen, we should think harder about how we can earn the attention of our students.”

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