I continue to hear from teachers nationwide that genuine conversations are becoming more difficult in their classrooms. Students seem more comfortable interacting on portable devices than they are face-to-face. The screens in our lives are negatively influencing our social interactions.
In addition to technology, new research demonstrates that other factors are playing a role in influencing student discussion, student engagement, and attention spans.
Temperaments Influence Attention Spans
There is an inverse relationship between attention spans and certain temperaments.
In an early study of the influence of temperament on attention span, the mothers of 232 pairs of twins were interviewed periodically about the similarities and differences in behavior displayed by their twins during infancy and early childhood. “The results showed that each of the behavioral variables (temper frequency, temper intensity, irritability, crying, and demanding attention) had a significant inverse relationship with attention span. In other words, the twin with a longer attention span was better able to remain absorbed in a particular activity without distraction and was also the less temperamental twin.”
Certain personalities lead to shorter attention spans which lead to difficulty in sustaining classroom discussion.
This doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be poorer students who make bad grades. It does mean educators and parents will have to work harder to keep them engaged. Between a short temper in a student and a distracting culture full of smartphones, teachers have their work cut out for them. Bottom line? Adult leaders must be more intentional about conditioning such students to learn how to have productive and civil discussions in their learning environments.
Four Timeless Tools We Can Use
As the fall semester begins, let me remind you of four approaches we can take to engage students within our care. Regardless of whether you’re a teacher, an athletic coach, an employer of young team members or a parent, the following tools have proven to be magnetic to students. I’ll explain why at the end of this article:
The human mind has always been enthralled with narratives and short stories more than didactic lectures full of information. How could you insert a story within your history lesson; or a story about the author before reading a book; or maybe a story about the mathematician who discovered the formula you’ll be studying today? Stories add humanity and life to often sterile information.
Instead of being a “talking head” at the front of the class, what if you inserted an experience into your class period, be it a game, a competition, a video you discuss or a mini-field trip across the campus. Experiences are more engaging for students of any learning style than mere instruction. In fact, experiences are almost sure to launch discussion afterward, debriefing what happened.
When we polled more than 3,000 university students in 2014, we asked them what enabled them to remember information. Their top response? Music. They are right of course. Did we not memorize A, B, C’s by singing them? Connecting words with notes stirs us. When information is relayed in a song lyric, it can remain in our head for years and foster all kinds of discussion with students.
Finally, because we think in pictures (at least most of our brains do) and because pictures are worth a thousand words, the use of pictures or visuals can almost always stimulate conversation among students of all ages. Today’s students grew up with screens, videos and imagery almost everywhere they looked. We must leverage this natural language to spark conversation.
Last year, I met Eric, a new high school teacher who was in his second career, after leading a business for 16 years. He loves teaching but was challenged with engaging today’s Generation Z student. He knows he’s up against Netflix and YouTube for their attention—and he felt like he was losing the battle.
The good news is—Eric began launching his class period with one of our Habitudes that coincided with his topic for the day. (Habitudes are images that form leadership habits and attitudes). He smiled as he told me he was now able to do something that neither Netflix nor YouTube was able to do: converse with the students, face-to-face. And those students are loving it. I want to encourage you to capitalize on what you have that Hollywood doesn’t have: face-to-face time with students for discussion.