If you teach in the 21 century, you will inevitably encounter the challenges which stem from distractibility and Attention Deficit Disorder.
As a society, we’re finding ways to cope with this trend, and how it effects learning in particular. I’d like to share some of my own thoughts, and some pedagogical methods which might be helpful in dealing with ADD and its ramifications.
I should say from the outset that I’m not a clinician and hold no medical degrees. My data comes from research and from personal experience. I am ready to be proved wrong by others with a more thorough background, and would welcome a discussion which benefits teachers, who will certainly need to establish their philosophy on this topic, as well as a range of appropriate responses.
Study the Roots
Shifting Patterns of Life
In short, and in general, we have altered the way we spend our time, removing many of the lengthy tasks which required sustained focus, and replacing them with a variety of shorter, simultaneous tasks between which focus is divided. As manual labor became mechanized, and as many repetitive tasks were taken off our hands by computers, we shifted our working and learning methods. Rather than sustained tasks which might take all day, we are now much more comfortable with shorter, more readily achievable objectives.
The Advent of Devices
Simultaneously, new and highly attractive methods of distraction have become available. This is best exemplified by the range of mobile devices which are now ubiquitous, even in the developing world. Don’t get me wrong - I have an Iphone and it improves my life, but I have to be very careful as to how much time I spend using it, and the manner of that use. Flicking constantly from one input to another, reacting instantly to an input but then spending only a few seconds with it, and the tendency to thereby ignore the world around me, strike me as poor training for my mind. I encourage you to consider that every act, no matter how small, is training a habituation. If we spend most of our time rapidly moving from topic to topic, or app to app, then we’ll become very good at it, perhaps at the expense of our ability to focus in a sustained way.
The Brain’s Pleasure Center
The brain responds positively to novelty, and to rapid sequences of engaging material - be it visual, aural, tactile or gustatory - in particular. This positive response releases pleasure hormones which are soaked up by the brain; it then demands more (sooner or later), thus modifying our behavior to suit a cyclical pattern of brain appeasement: the ‘reward circuit’ best known to habitual cigarette smokers and other drug addicts. We are beginning to see diagnoses of ‘internet addiction’, and I believe it is only a matter of time before we see ‘device addiction’ as a clinical issue. Such commands from the brain are remarkably powerful - as a reformed smoker, I can testify to this much - and have the capacity to change our behavior and, importantly, craft new habits which exist purely to serve the cerebral reward circuit.
Picture a bored student. They’re likely to be fidgeting and searching around for a source of stimulus. The more our students habituate quickly finding and enjoying a stimulus, and then moving equally quickly to the next one, the more we’ll see the classic behaviors:
- Writing which does not rest on the line, and is often indecipherable
- Doodling, pen-twirling and other repetitive, manual tasks
- Fidgeting or rocking back and forth
- Distracting others in the search for something new to do
And if these seem like uniquely childish behaviors, be assured that there are not plenty of adults who exhibit these very same mannerisms.
A ‘habit’ is simply something that you do every day. You probably have a whole set of habits which you wouldn’t label as such - morning coffee, a particular way of feeding your cat, the order in which you open your favorite web pages each day. Another way of thinking of habits is as ‘practices’; after all, what are either of things except repeated actions which become smoother and faster over time? Consider, then, what ours students are practicing (and again I mean this in the most general terms): very short bursts of focus; rapid switching from one activity to another; the expectation of an instant response, and the requirement for instant gratification. It is these things, whether we see them as damaging or not, at which are students will become adept.
I wonder if you’ve experienced something like this. One of my students has developed a habit which might, at first, sound perfectly reasonable: when he doesn’t know the word for something, he’ll reach for his cellphone and pull up his dictionary. He translates the word from Arabic to English and shows me the word; he prefers this to actually trying to say the word, although I insist that he pronounces it. He then moves right along; the new vocabulary is instantly discarded. Worse still, he’s made no attempt to circumvent the problem by using words he already knows.
I believe this apparently innocuous example reveals a whole set of problems:
- an over reliance on his cellphone for use as a dictionary
- the continuation of an old-fashioned, translation method of learning new words
- a poor methodology for learning vocabulary, which is uttered but not recorded or practiced
- the rejection of an opportunity to practice existing language and thereby gain greater fluency.
In total, it’s a very bad habit which harms his learning; he’s using his cellphone like the forerunner of the ‘automatic translator’ from science fiction; furthermore, he’s treating vocabulary like a stumbling block - and one which must be overcome by the fastest possible method - rather than as a learning opportunity.
Deal with It Effectively
Current treatments for attention issues fall into basically two categories. The first, and by far the most prevalent, is medication. It is statistically likely that at least one your students is being medicated with stimulants intended to help them focus. This can be very effective - I’ll be honest and state that I would not have my doctorate without it - but medication strikes me as a temporary, ‘band-aid’ solution which may adequately address some of the symptoms, but does not treat the problem at its root.
My main issue with Ritalin, Concerta and the others is that they, in themselves, promote a new habit: taking stimulants every day. This topic elicits strong opinions, and medication has strong advocates as well as fervent detractors, so I’ll simply state that replacing a bad habit (distractibility) with a chemical habit (stimulants) just doesn’t feel right. It might work for some people, and we should applaud any reasonable method which brings relief to those suffering the most serious forms of these ailments, but I don’t think we should see it as a panacea. I also feel that, once more research is done, we’ll discover far better methods for treating ADD, and that two or three generations from now, stimulants will already be seen as outdated.
In any event, this isn’t an option for the average ESL teacher; it is, however, something of which teachers should be made aware, so that they can bear in mind the needs of each student.
The one stimulant whose use I wholeheartedly support, however, is tea, especially Asian green teas which don’t need milk. The remarkable health benefits of tea are finally becoming plain, and it provides a steady, continuous lift, rather than that sudden jolt of hyper-alertness (often followed by a debilitating crash) offered by coffee. It also requires no sugar, thereby side-stepping yet another neurochemical boom-bust cycle.
Mindfulness and Meditation
The second category is the family of practices summed up by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). These approaches center around treating the deeper issues - distractibility and impulsiveness - and training the mind to focus on a single, unshifting object for sustained periods. The primary working method is meditation, during which we focus purely and exclusively on the breath. Again, I must admit a personal bias: I have a daily sitting practice, and it has brought enormous benefits.
In the educational context, meditation has been shown to encourage better classroom behavior, sustained focus and an ability to stay on task, as well as the achievement of better grades. Students who regularly sit are calmer and less prone to anger, more compassionate and empathic, and derive more from the learning process.
Again, this may or may not be something you’re in a position to introduce, but if you spend a lot of time with the same group, or you’re responsible for policy, please consider introducing a few minutes of meditation during each school day. It could also be an elective, offered in small groups (or large, if your students are mature enough to take it seriously) which occupy the most quiet place you can find. It is free, requires no equipment, is easy to learn and, certainly at the level we’re concerned with, has no drawbacks.
Consider Your Device Policy
You may disagree - and I welcome a debate on all of these points - but I believe that cellphones are a major enabler of distraction. When used responsibly, they are great learning tools, but consider this: how many of your students can you trust to be mature and responsible, and for how much of the time? Even the most assiduous learner can be swayed by the attractions of a new FaceBook post, a text, a news story or something less wholesome. I had a student who was eventually accepted to Harvard, but still fell foul of my zero-tolerance cellphone policy; she couldn’t resist progressing just one more level on a remarkably addictive cellphone-based game which she played surreptitiously under the desk.
If a student is staring at their phone, their almost certainly doing so in silence (bad), they’re likely to be using L1 (bad), they’re unsupervised and likely to stray off task (very bad) and they’re simply practicing being distracted, rather than the day’s material (terrible).
My students have pushed back, occasionally very hard. I’m accused of lacking an understand of their generation, of ignoring the Zeitgeist, and even of infringing upon their human rights. My response is always the same:
- It’s my classroom, so you’re going to follow my rules. You agreed to them on Day One, anyway.
- Our classes are short enough that you’re not denied your phone for long. Whatever your phone wants you to do, surely it can wait forty minutes?
- If you need a dictionary, buy a dictionary; for some of my students - and it makes me shudder to think of this - a dictionary might be the only book they handle all day.
- Do you really want to spend time staring at a little screen, rather than talking with the fascinating people around you?
- If so, does this mean you’re addicted to a piece of technology? What do you make of that?
Keep Everyone Busy
A class which has clear aims, has had the day’s material well explained to them, and who understand the task they’re engaged in, is much less likely to be distracted. As teachers, we know that attention issues will crop up; it becomes a matter of ensuring that they do so as infrequently as possible.
Consider the material. Is a class of French and Chinese seventeen year-olds really going to find cerebral sustenance in an article on canal dredging in Louisiana? Are young, hip people going to light up at the very mention of the American electoral college system? We must often teach material which even we ourselves find a bit dull, but if that’s the case, inject as much relevance and humor as possible; preface it with a funny story, or perhaps even just poke fun at the content while ensuring that it’s understood and that the target language is being practiced.
In a recent show, the comedian John Oliver delved into the harrowing and complex topic of the death penalty; but before he began, he promised (and later, delivered) an almost unforgivably cute Youtube clip of a baby hamster eating a miniature taco. There are a hundred ways to spice things up, and our students have the right to expect that we deliver our content in ways which are relevant to them, somehow incentivized, and genuinely engaging.
I see teachers as having an important role in the issue of attention deficit.
For centuries we have shaped student habits and behaviors, and believe we can continue to do so in ways which promote sustained focus, and perhaps eventually, the beginning of the end of distractibility.