Adapting teaching and learning to maintain engagement in the digital age
Al Kingsley examines the increasing digital pressures that affect student attention spans suggesting ways to adapt our pedagogy accordingly.
How long do you normally expect your students to maintain their attention span during lessons? Some research has shown a typical student’s concentration span is about 10 to 15 minutes long, while other studies suggest the human attention span has dropped to eight seconds. These findings aren’t all too surprising given the popularity of platforms like TikTok which only demand engagement for seconds at a time however, it does make more evident a growing challenge for teachers in being able to effectively maintain students’ attention.
Research shows shorter attention spans
What is not contested is the fact that the increasing use of technology is altering the way our brains work. A Pew Internet survey of nearly 2,500 teachers found 87 per cent believe new technologies are creating an ‘easily distracted generation with short attention spans’ and 64 per cent feel today’s digital technologies ‘do more to distract students than help them academically.’
It’s natural for attention levels to vary according to motivation, mood, perceived relevance of the material and other factors. However, whether it’s the ping of a new text message or a beep from a news feed, our day is now peppered with the sound of technology. These constant technology-driven distractions weaken the ability of students to focus on a task. And the main culprit is the mobile phone.
However, even if students switch their phones off during study time, their brains are now trained to expect constant interruptions and their minds naturally wander off to other areas of interest. This leads to poor performance, a lack of attention to detail and an inability to complete tasks in one go.
While many see this as a point of concern, are we simply looking at this in the wrong way?
When we label a shortening of attention span and an inability to focus on a single task for longer than 10 minutes as a problem, are we really just misunderstanding how this generation processes information? I believe the solution to this challenge lies in understanding it, appreciating it and using it to optimise students’ learning. We must adjust our current way of teaching to better accommodate the way today’s students learn.
Making use of these findings
Firstly, I have to say that technology is not the problem. It may have changed the way students process information, but a majority of teachers appreciate the powerful impact technology can have on learning. Whether it’s used to engage reluctant readers in books, give maths students a visual interpretation of a problem, or make them more self-sufficient researchers; the appropriate use of technology is rarely questioned.
I believe we can make improvements in our teaching simply by creating and encouraging a different classroom dynamic. Here are some ideas for doing so:
1. Guide on the side rather than sage on the stage
Classes based on the ‘sage on the stage’ teaching model (i.e the teacher in lecture mode at the front of the class) often produce learners whose attention spans are low. By comparison, when classes combine teacher talk, demonstrations, hands on activities and questions, students maintain longer attention spans.
Teaching and learning solutions that enable this flexibility and interaction including, student-led classes where they can screen share and use group chat functions for collaboration, provides a direct boost in attention. It has been shown that this often occurs during classes immediately following a change, therefore segmenting classes into shorter sections will help sustain attention.
We all learn more efficiently when information is presented to us in multiple modes, including visually, auditorily and kinaesthetically. In their book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), Hattie and Yates suggests we are all visual learners, as well as auditory learners and that we all learn better when the inputs we experience are multi-modal or conveyed through different media.
Therefore, it is worth considering adopting EdTech which can support these functionalities – those that allow teachers to share screens and audio with students as well as being able to launch learning materials in external apps and websites. This way a wide variety of teaching and learning approaches can be easily integrated into the everyday classroom with ease.
3. Flexible and blended learning
Post-pandemic, it is vital that teachers have the ability to deliver lessons in different places. This is advantageous for practical reasons that may require to remote learning. However, introducing this approach can also help maintain student engagement in a range of different circumstances.
EdTech can support this, with the recent introduction of a blended approach to learning, supported by solutions such as classroom.cloud’s teaching and classroom management platform. These solutions provide the essential tools for multi-location learning whether in the classroom, school library, or at home.
4. Incorporate regular free play
In an office working environment, most people will get up regularly to talk to colleagues, make a drink or go for a break. Bearing in mind Finnish students perform well above average in the OECD’s PISA league tables, it’s interesting to note its government stipulates students should receive 15 minutes of free time during every hour of class.
5. Involve students in lesson planning
The logic behind bringing students into the lesson planning is based on the understanding that if students have been involved, they’re much more likely to stay engaged, taking a personal interest in ‘their’ lesson.
6. Incorporate the unexpected
Introducing short, unexpected elements into any lesson can often pull student’s attention back to the learning objective. This includes playing a piece of music, tasking students with a quick brain teaser or hosting a related quiz.
Technology is here to stay. It is only going to get faster, more powerful and more integrated into our everyday lives.
The human element
Finally, as I argue in, ‘My Secret #EdTech Diary’,
“It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that when it came to the challenges of delivering online learning, technology and the right application platform provided the infrastructure needed, but the human-to-human element is what made the lessons and determined the outcomes.”
In other words, technology is an effective means to an end, but what makes us good learners and good teachers is our unique ability to make contact with each other as humans.
Al Kingsley is CEO of NetSupport, Chair of Hampton Academies Trust and a member of the Regional Schools Directorate Advisory Board for the East of England.