Thursday, 26 June 2014

Technology, distraction and harnessing our brains


Image courtesy of Hunter Langston designs
Image courtesy of Hunter Langston



I try not to call myself a technology evangelist, but I do believe that when used appropriately technology can enhance learning. So I've found it concerning to come across a number of articles in the past week highlighting the growing concern that certain technologies might be hampering students' ability to both concentrate and learn. But to what extent is this really a new phenomenon?

Our mind is unquestionably the most powerful technology we have at our disposal. But in the same way as the internet, laptops and mobile devices, our mind can also be a huge distraction. The ability to focus our attention and our thinking, even for a short period of time, is challenging. If you have ever tried to meditate and focus on being ‘in the moment’, you will appreciate the power of the subconscious to distract your focus, constantly throwing up disjointed thoughts and observations. Sometimes when I meditate I wonder how I manage to achieve anything at all amongst all the noise.

The ability to focus our attention for sustained periods of time is an essential part of consciousness, and developing and improving the ability to focus attention is an implicit in programmes of learning. Although presenting students with more stimuli in the form of information may capture their attention for a period of time, the length of this period will very considerably from person to person depending on their state of mind. There are also a range of variable including the tutor’s charisma, the way in which the information is presented, and the pedagogical approach chosen for the learning activity.

My point is that laptops, mobiles and the internet are tools just as the brain is a tool. The extent to which they are useful or distracting depends on the ability to harness and use them with focused attention. Few would deny that these tools have changed and will continue to change how we learn for the foreseeable future. But in light of this fact, perhaps there is a corresponding need to place greater emphasis on our ability to harness our attention.

Meditation is an effective way to help us become more aware of what it feels like to really focus. A basic three-minute breathing exercise at the start of each class would help clear the brain of at least some of the subconscious distractions that will hamper our ability to focus our attention. Rather than blaming technology for increasing distraction and disrupting concentration, perhaps we should instead consider trying to help ourselves and our students develop our thinking processes to take greater advantage of the affordances of these tools.
 
(And a big thank you to Hunter Langston for his excellent image above).

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