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‘Teachers are having to work harder to find lessons that distract students from the digital mind swamp’

I am far from a Luddite, writes one teacher, but the challenges of teaching 21st-century pupils are many and manifest

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A study last year by Microsoft concludes that attention spans have gone down since the year 2000, from 12 seconds then, to 8 seconds now. Humorous headlines about humans having the brains of goldfish followed, but this growing "attention deficit" is only one small symptom of a digital revolution that continues to surprise us with every new app, website or smart device that enters the market.

The effect of this revolution on young people and behaviour in schools is only just starting to manifest itself. Whereas in the 20th century, a lad would be told off for smacking a football through a garage window or getting covered in mud, it’s now much more likely they will be spending their time in front of a camera phone, trying to perfect a seamless selfie. In 50 years’ time, the phrase “boys will be boys” may have taken on a whole new meaning.

Now, before I go any further, this is not an anti-tech blog. I am no Luddite and embrace all facets of technology in my daily life (I had a thoroughly good time at the Bett conference last month and tweeted my highlights). The internet is an amazing thing. It has liberalised information. It has inspired entrepreneurship as much as the Industrial Revolution did in Britain 150 years ago and it has even saved lives, allowing the instant transfer of sometimes vital messages. Of course, anyone with an ounce of common sense knows all this. But, for all the good it has brought, it seems to be throwing up some potentially dangerous side effects.

Dangerous addiction

For many children, without the self-control of the average adult, the internet has sucked them into a dangerous addiction of pointless distraction through a stream of alerts, offers, feeds and fads. It’s taking them away from a quiet mind space – from understanding their own spirituality, from seeing nature and from exploring the world around them. In education, the digital mind swamp has created a new set of student behaviours that educators are just starting to come to terms with.

Stimulating and engaging young minds has become more difficult than ever before, when those same minds are already subconsciously composing their next text or wondering when their next notification will arrive. The bickering and gossip of the average playground has been given a 24-hour licence to roam through the classrooms, bedrooms, roads and parks of our land. It has morphed itself into the handheld device, taking with it the bullying, the noise and the incessant banter. Now, it transmits itself to every child at a high frequency all day, every day; providing the opportunity for the connectivity that every teenager craves but also presenting risks in every post shared. It invades the personal space in such a way that it leeches on to the chords of the thought process and strangles it, presenting a dazzling kaleidoscope of mostly meaningless nonsense, requiring something special to break through it.

Teachers are breaking through it. Every day. Believe me: I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing colleagues over the past eight years, pushing the envelope of creativity every single lesson. But at what cost? At the moment, teachers are working harder and harder to provide learning experiences that captivate students, that take students somewhere else. But to make that happen consistently can be a punishing process, especially when juggling the desire to plan incredible lessons with countless other demands.

Suicide risk

Students now turn up to lessons shattered after long nights trawling twitter feeds, flicking through YouTube videos and watching online pornornography that makes Page 3 seem like a cuddly toy in comparison. The NSPCC reported a doubling of calls from children regarding its impact up to March 2015, with many worried about addiction. Teachers are picking up the pieces every day in the classroom, asking little Johnny to read part of a book, where even the consumption of a single sentence becomes a significant cognitive challenge. Not for any literacy shortfall, but because of the sheer demands on the concentration span. Teachers are comforting the child who can’t escape her tormentors; Snapchat isn’t a bedroom door that can be slammed shut. The bullies can get to the bullied, the clicks can get more clicky and the cult of celebrity more alluring. The most tragic and extreme result is the suicide of teenagers trapped in their own digital hell.

The student profile of this century could be punctuated by a rise in two behaviours: passivity and apathy. The threshold to create the "love of learning" that Ofsted wants to see flowing through every orifice of schools is becoming gradually tougher to attain. The answer to this can’t be a ban on technology in schools, which would not only be counterproductive but nigh on impossible to enforce. It has to come in the form of a much more rigorous and serious approach to internet and social media education.

Spirituality and mindfulness

It needs to come in the form of a more prominent role for spiritual exploration in school time and perhaps even a place for mindfulness. Before Donald Trump accuses me of being a hippie, this is far from a battle cry for some kind of tree-hugging curriculum. However, it is my genuine belief that there is a vacuum in the lives of many young people that is becoming wider, and the more we dismiss silence and stillness as an appropriate use of time, the more obvious it seems. The overt secularisation of our society and subsequently, our education system, seems to have relegated the usefulness of thinking about the idea of God or any kind of higher being into the bracket of awkwardness. This is despite the fact many young people are positively questioning the reasons behind their existence more so than ever.

In addition to these changes, a serious look at the times of the school day, the use of technology within the curriculum and a re-evaluation of whole school sanction models to focus more on “behaviour for learning” could be helpful.

But its society that is changing. For schools, it can only be damage limitation, despite the expectations from the Department for Education for schools to fix all ills.

I’ve written before about the need for students and parents to be more accountable for their own attitudes and behaviours. This could still be the crux of the issue. Nevertheless, some questions to mull over: is technology helping to produce learners with a natural spirit of enquiry or learners who see wisdom as a googleable commodity? Is technology genuinely supporting educational outcomes or is it merely providing glossy branding for schools? Is the domination of social media over the lives of so many children a force for good in terms of learning or, on the contrary, a more disruptive development?

Whatever the answers are, one thing is for sure, the 21st-century learner will be a tough nut to crack.

Tom Rogers runs and tweets at @RogersHistory

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