Invited Post by Lisa Lawter, Ph.D. and Marshall Andrew Glenn, Ph.D.
While many educators extol the benefits that technology plays in teaching, it also has its “distractors” to the point that it is getting some bad press about its deleterious effects on the attention system to the point that some teachers complain “depth and breadth” of learning are being compromised.
In order to better understand the construct of attention, it is instructive to draw our attention to the neuropsychological components of attention and their underlying brain structures likely associated with each. According to Mirsky and Duncan (2001), attention is a multifaceted system implicating several brain structures for specialization. The encode element, with supporting brain structures of the amygdala and hippocampus, mediates the brain’s capacity to hold onto information briefly and perform some mental operation on it, i.e., working memory. The focus/execute element, implicating the inferior parietal lobule, superior temporal gyrus and some structures of the corpus striatum, allows for focusing on a stimuli in the mist of distracting stimuli while executing a quick response. The shift element, with supporting brain structures of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate gyrus, allows for shifting attention from one stimulus to another. The sustain element, with supporting structures of the brainstem, reticular activating system (RAS) and the midline of the thalamus, mediates sustained focus, or vigilance. Finally, the stabilize element, supported by the other attention systems but exact structures unknown, mediates the consistency of responding to a “target” stimulus. It is clear that our attentional system is complex, multifaceted and influenced by both biological and environmental factors.
Of course it is important to keep in mind that the biological governance of our attention system is influenced, i.e., sculpted by a rapidly changing post-modern world, the effects which have not gone unnoticed. For example, Dimitri Christakis et al. ( 2004) studied the TV viewing time of 1,300 children, ages 1 to 3 years, as rated their mothers on a behavior rating scale and later evaluated their attention and behaviors at age 7. Mothers who rated their children as frequent TV viewers tended to score in the highest 10% for problems in attention, concentration, impulsiveness and behavioral control. Moreover, for every additional hour of TV viewing, the chances of experiencing attention problems increased by 10%. This preliminary study suggested an associated between early TV exposure and attention problems.
Computers were once a huge machine in the basement and now they are in our pockets. School districts are stretching budgets thin to fill their schools with the latest technology and super software. The average classroom has at least one desk top computer, a class set of laptops, iPads are appearing, not to mention that it is standard to have a SmartBoard in classes including Pre-Kindergarten. New technology is hitting the market daily. The equipment is simple to learn and the possibilities are limitless. Answers to all questions are just a click away. This all sounds good but what are teacher’s thoughts about educational technology, what do parents think about technology? And most important, what do students think about technology in the classroom?
Teachers say: According to The New York Times articles entitled “Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say” teachers are reporting that students have spent more time with screens than they spend in school. In this article teachers were concerned with a decline in student’s abilities to analyze and think deeply about a topic. Shorten attention span of students was also listed as an issue teacher feel is caused by digital technologies. In this article, Dr. Christakis remarked, that the overreliance of technology “makes reality by comparison uninteresting.” Many times schools use computer programs to assist students who need remediation. Teachers are saying what these students really need is feedback from an actual teacher and quality instruction not a bell that goes off when you get the answer correct on the screen. Teachers do credit technology with improving research skills. At this juncture, results are equivocal and more research is needed. But one cannot help but sympathize with teachers frustrated with ever challenging expectations that must be accomplished in a medial-filled, sound-bite, You-Tube media of attention-challenged students.
Parents say: Parents are worried about safety. Internet has the potential to expose children and youth to inappropriate information. One click of the mouse and children are on websites that have questionable content and may be unsuitable for their age. Some parents grew up before the age of technology so they must spend time learning how to use it. Often children are more technologically savvy than their parents. Some parents of children with disabilities embrace technology. Assistive technology devices have made it possible for their child to communicate, to participate in school and in the community. This would not have been possible before technology.
The U.S. State Department of Education is concerned about how schools are using technology. The LEAD Commission, a public-private commission created by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is charged with the task of crafting a blueprint for better use of educational technology. Teachers and parents are being surveyed. It seems the crucial component of technology in classrooms is the students. What do students think about the way technology is used in classrooms? The field of education needs to hear from students.
1. What do students think is the best use of technology in schools?
2. What do students think the roles of computers should be in the classroom?
3. What do students think about computers being used as tutors?
4. Do students want more time with the teacher or is the computer instruction enough?
5. What is a good use of the internet in classrooms?
Christakis, D., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D.L., McCarty, C.A., Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics Vol. 113 No. 4 April 1, 2004 Retrieved from: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/4/708.full
Mirsky, A.F. and Duncan, C.C. (2001), A nosology of disorders of dttention. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 931: 17-32. doi: 101111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05771.x
Richtel, M.(2012, November 1). Technology changing how students learn, teachers say. The New York Times
Marshall Andrew Glenn, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Applied Behavioral Studies program at Oklahoma City University. He holds a Diplomate from the American Board of School Neuropsychology and also serves as an Examiner.
Lisa Lawter, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at Oklahoma City University. Her focus area is special education.