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The Dying Art of Single-tasking

November 6, 2012

I read an interesting post by Canadian principal Cale Birk about the need for teachers to hold the attention of their students rather than complaining about them being distracted. My digital friend Paul Barnwell had a thoughtful response that is worth checking out.

Generally speaking, I believe Cale is right. As a teacher, I aim to capture my students’ attention by keeping my classes interesting and compelling. One of Cale’s main points, which he keeps alluding to in the comment thread, is that we shouldn’t label young people as the only ones prone to digital distraction. Again, I generally agree with him. Older adults can be just as bad as young people when it comes to dividing their attention between their digital companions and what is happening in front of them. Heck, my wife certainly spends more time on Facebook than my teenage kids.

Even though I generally agree with Cale that the challenge is transgenerational, there is an important distinction between the generations. I pointed this out to Cale in the comment thread of his blog. Here’s what I said to him:

Cale, I agree with you that the problem of digital distraction is not limited to young people. No doubt. However, keep in mind that “older” people are more practiced in the art of what I call “single tasking.” We have known a time in our lives when we were completely unplugged; we experienced boredom without a media source to mask over it, and most of us were more connected to nature. Even though most of us are now susceptible to digital distraction, we can draw on our already developed ability to single task. My concern is that young people — especially those born in the last ten years — are at risk of losing this ability.

For a more extended treatment of the attention/distraction challenge, check this out.

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