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Hocus Pocus or Focus


Date posted: December 19, 2013


Does all the technological wizardry of the latest gadgets, games and applications inhibit our ability to concentrate? Does all this magical media provide a constant source of distraction that conditions our brains for short attention spans?

Some scholars believe that the ability to focus and concentrate is a strong predictor of success. The ability to attend to a problem, think about complexity, wrestle with potential solutions is fundamental to writing, science, mathematics and life in general.

When we see people who are constantly checking their phone, who must instantly respond to each text message, who relentlessly multitask, it’s only natural to wonder if they can still concentrate long enough to complete a task, particularly if that task is something long, involved and complicated, like an experiment or crafting a strategic business plan.

We see people playing video games with laser-like attention for hours at a time during which they are forming strategies, solving problems, working towards goals. Yet, when confronted with the need to concentrate and draw meaning out of complex texts, these same folks have problems. Attention wanders. There’s a temptation to check Facebook.

Modern brain research indicates that the pre-frontal cortex, which controls executive functions like focus and concentration, is one of the last to develop. A child’s experiences during adolescence play a large role in determining how that part of the brain develops.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, speaking with KQED, worries that young students aren’t building up “the neural circuitry that focused attention requires,” and recommends schools be more intentional about giving kids targeted opportunities to concentrate on tasks.

Although Goleman also recommends periodic “digital Sabbaths,” during which no technology is used, it’s also worth noting that technology can be used to practice sustained attention. Studies have found specific games helped ADHD kids concentrate longer and helped senior citizens improve working memory and attention.

Project-based learning, particularly when combined with 21st century skills emphasizing the 4 Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity), is one way to give students engaging learning that requires sustained bouts of attentiveness and thought. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills documents many schools doing just exactly this in Patterns of Innovation.

The devices, applications and connectivity are already here, already a part of our lives, and are something we all have to learn to harness and use effectively. And we also need to be able to turn off, tune out, and spend time concentrating on tasks for sustained periods. The key to doing so successfully is to give kids a wide variety of rich learning experiences in a variety of environments, both with and without technology.

Variety is not just “the spice of life,” it’s also a key seasoning in the recipe for brain development.