I posted on Monday on the important subject of doodling, and about how it can boost productivity and prevent distraction – concentrating on a low-level task such as scrawling abstract marks on a sheet of paper is better than the various alternatives, such as daydreaming (cognitively expensive) and, our modern invention, staring at our devices.
You do not need to look far (on the internet, paradoxically) for articles on the deterioration of our collective and personal attention span. A particularly well-reasoned example was published recently by Clay Shirky, who teaches at NYU on, among other things, the Internet and decentralised communication networks, in which he relates that he now requires students to switch off all devices during his lessons.
He is worried, he says, that multitasking, and device-hopping in particular, create an ‘illusion of competence’. When our minds are whirring from one thing to another we feel energetically in control, as though we had accessed a super-power; but in fact we are processing much less of whatever it is we are dealing with. Studies quoted by Shirky read, for example, as follows:
Hierarchical (blocked) linear regression analyses revealed that using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively associated with overall college GPA. Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning.
And so on. Heavy multi-taskers, we learn, are poor at prioritising (they are “suckers for irrelevancy” according to the authors of one study; “Everything distracts them”). They cannot filter the junk. When they are forced to close the lids of their machines and pocket their phones, their predominant reaction is relief.
What this means for the language classroom I don’t know. But I do know that doing less, focussing on one task, usually achieves more. It doesn’t help to get a grammar refresher when you are trying to hear the difference between minimal pairs of vowels. And it certainly doesn’t help to check your work email when you are trying to internalise some grammatical structure or other.
However, if, beyond our devices, there lies a Nirvana of pure concentration, achievement, success, then there remains the question why we weren’t all living there long before we got our smartphones. Perhaps the devices have adapted themselves to us and our failings, rather than the other way around. Concentration has never been easy.