Digital classroom tools like computers, tablets and smartphones offer exciting opportunities to deepen learning through creativity, collaboration and connection, but those very devices can also be distracting to students. Similarly, parents complain that when students are required to complete homework assignments online, it’s a challenge for students to remain on task. The ubiquity of digital technology in all realms of life isn’t going away, but if students don’t learn how to concentrate and shut out distractions, research shows they’ll have a much harder time succeeding in almost every area.
“The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning on KQED’s Forum program.
“Children I’m particularly worried about because the brain is the last organ of the body to become anatomically mature. It keeps growing until the mid-20s,” Goleman said. If young students don’t build up the neural circuitry that focused attention requires, they could have problems controlling their emotions and being empathetic.
“The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,” Goleman said. The area of the brain that governs focus and executive functioning is known as the pre-frontal cortex. This is also the part of the brain that allows people to control themselves, to keep emotions in check and to feel empathy for other people.
“The attentional circuitry needs to have the experience of sustained episodes of concentration -- reading the text, understanding and listening to what the teacher is saying -- in order to build the mental models that create someone who is well educated,” Goleman said. “The pulls away from that mean that we have to become more intentional about teaching kids.” He advocates for a “digital sabbath” everyday, some time when kids aren’t being distracted by devices at all. He’d also like to see schools building exercises that strengthen attention, like mindfulness practices, into the curriculum.