In the next decade and beyond, the information age will see focus becoming the cognitive currency essential to excelling in learning and the workplace. Chances are you have diverted from whatever it was you sat down at your device to do in order to read this article. There is also a high probability that you won’t complete reading this piece in one go, if at all. Often a quick scroll to the bottom to assess an article’s length will determine your commitment to it. When there is a cacophony of interruptions that are so inherent with being anywhere near a screen, remaining in one digital space isn’t easy.
Our brains are becoming accustomed, or “rewired” as some theorists would put it, to being constantly and instantly satiated. News can be disseminated in 140 characters or less, apps deliver communication that self destructs and an idle moment leads us to thumbing through images on a conveyor belt of carefully curated self-absorption.
Therefore, our propensity to invest time into acquiring information and converting it to knowledge is becoming increasingly limited. In his book Netsmart (1), Howard Rheingold suggests that attention is a vital skill in this digital age and growing research continues to confirm this. In a longitudinal study of over 1,000 children, Moffitt & Caspi (2) found the ability to exercise self-control and concentrate was one of the strongest predictors of success in later life. However, our ability to maintain focus on singular streams is becoming increasingly hindered with the proliferation of technology, where being constantly connected is the new normal. Whilst multitasking is a term synonymous with technology use, academics warn that dividing one’s attention between multiple operations only dilutes the efficiency, and often even the effectiveness, of the process. Whilst technology has advanced at an exponential rate, our biological makeup has not. Our brain has a limited capacity of functioning memory to attend to tasks and technology can create the traffic jam that Alan Welford dubbed “central bottleneck theory”.
If we are cognisant of these challenges as adults, what then does this mean for school students? Children are learning in a world where flitting from one source to the next is all they’ve ever known and access to the internet is as expected at home and in the classroom as having electricity. Assuming that these “digital natives” have inherent digital literacy skills is a serious misconception that can lead to children not understanding how to use technology responsibly and effectively for learning. Digital literacy must begin to address focus as a skill that must be trained and how to use it to steady the overwhelming flow of information that bombards us from day to day.
Note: In order to write this, I turned off my phone, disabled email notifications (3) and blocked (4) social media sites in my browser. Ironically, I also wasted 5 minutes trying to get Apple Music to play the ‘Music for Concentration’ playlist.
Mac Tip: If you hold alt/option and click the Spotlight corner, it will disable notifications.
StayFocused Chrome/Safari Plugin