Teachers have noticed too. “It’s a problem! The average teen has the attention span of about 28 seconds to begin with,” says Laura Schad, who teaches seventh and eighth graders (ages 12-14) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She says that while smartphones have clearly affected her students’ developing brains, training on how to tackle the issue is lacking: how education should evolve for digital-native students was not covered when she qualified in 2015.
Tech’s effects are clearest in the most traditional school task, reading, especially as kids migrate from text-based digital media to image-heavy apps like Instagram and Snapchat.
“Students, now, seem to find it particularly exhausting to read complex or long text without regular breaks. In the past, students seemed to be accustomed to attending to a text for a longer period of time,” says Erica Swift, sixth-grade teacher at Herman Leimbach Elementary in Sacramento, California, not far from Silicon Valley. “You see their lack of stamina in them asking for breaks, talking to others instead of working, and even some just giving up on longer reading tasks.”
Transposing the text to a device doesn’t help, indicating the problem runs deeper than preferences for screens over print.
Taylor explains that attention isn’t just a value in itself, but functions as the gateway to higher forms of learning – especially memory – which in turn leads to deeper comprehension. “Without the ability to pay attention to something, kids are not going to be able to process [information]. They’re not going to be able to consolidate it into memory, which means they’re not going to be able to interpret, analyse, synthesise, critique and come to some decision about the information,” he says.
The classroom of the future
When students can’t seem to pay attention to long lectures, many teachers simply hack lessons into smaller chunks. Gail Desler, the tech integration specialist for Elk Grove school district, where Swift’s school is located, says: “A common thread among teachers is that short is good.”
Desler also points to teachers who begin classes with mindfulness exercises or deploy meditation when students need to concentrate. One high school teacher in Salinas, California, uses the Calm app to help students meditate, but a 2013 study indicated any sort of “tech breaks” could counteract anxious urges to multitask.