This week we were asked to analyse the following papers and a TED Talk presentation reflecting on how the accelerating pace of life and the distractions/noise in form of new means of communication are affecting our concentration and vanishing our “sanctuary” where we can dedicate time for thoughtful reflections. * “No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship”, David M. Levy. (2007) * “Speed and the Unsettling of Knowledge in the Digital University”, Ray Land, (2011). TED Talk “5 ways to listen better”, Julian Treasure, (2011) Distractions serve anything but the knowledge It is true that today’s digitisation and networking tools speed up the pace of our communicative exchanges. In the other hand, these increasingly attractive tools are stealing our time and helping to distract us. These distractions serve anything but the knowledge because seriously limit our ability to focus and attention (and hence learning).
Nowadays many people believe that reading an entire book is less attractive than commenting on their friends’ photos on Facebook or, open multiple tabs in a browser and quickly discover everything that is happening. It is precisely the possibility to access an incredible amount of information through the current digital technologies and encounter endless possibilities of knowledge that challenges our inability to build mental representations.
Given the monumental supply of information obtained through the mass media, especially the Internet, the individual focuses his attention by very few moments in the data exposed on computer screens as they navigate through new links. However, the quality of these connections often contrasts with the amount of information, which are hardly assimilated because there is no time or effort to establish relations between concepts and thus, creating new meanings.
As a result, individuals have habitual concentration difficulties, especially when “connect” with other people and at the same time read information in various news sites. It is not by chance the use of terms such as “connect”, “Liked” and “off” to describe relationships between people. It is as if the email’s boxes or the tweets call us all the time so that messages must be read and answered immediately. The schools adopting the digital education model have already evidenced these concentration problems. The use of new technologies in the classroom econfigures everyday identities of their teachers and students and thus, their own teaching practice in the presence of the students’ limitless access to information through the Internet. I believe that the teachers, as the digital immigrants, and students, as the digital natives, are overwhelmed with the emancipatory potential of the Internet that in somehow they are experiencing a sense of loss as pointed out Ray Land: “Paradoxically this may be experienced as a sense of loss as an earlier, more secure stance of familiar knowing has to be abandoned as new and unfamiliar knowledge is encountered”.
The temporary downside of this digital turn is a viral pact of mediocrity, through which teachers and students pretend to teach and learn, to the extent that the contents of academic papers are copied and pasted in the text with less and less reasoning being developed. New teachers adapted to this modus operandi disregard ethical issues and do not refute the information that the student presents through consultation online. Improving concentration in the digital environment Considering the above scenario, I believe that we need to re-think our strategy to overcome distraction and increase our capacity to learn in digital environments.
As David M. Levy mentioned: “It might well be possible to begin to explore different modes of thinking – routine and creative modes, as well as obsessive mind chatter – not only to develop more nuanced and refined understandings of these processes but to understand how to encourage or discourage them”. The starting point could be the understanding of the mechanisms of human attention, decode how it works and even how to develop it. I personally think that concentration is not innate to the human being, but a skill that can be taught throughout life and can always be improved.
Recently I read an intriguing book called “The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force” (Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, 2003) about the brain plasticity, which is the neurons’ ability to redistribute according to need and training. The conclusions regarding the brain’s ability to rewire itself and the idea that meditation may be driving neuroplastic changes are quite inspiring in the book. For J. Schwartz and S. Begley, the best way to ensure attention is to choose challenging activities.
If the task is so hard that we almost cannot do it, will certainly require more focus. However, it is not always clear that we like or feel challenged by everything that we need to do. Sometimes the work is simply annoying, but still needs to be done. In these cases, the trick is to turn it into a kind of game, focusing on one phase at a time. Overcome steps, one by one, can leave the whole process more attractive. Something like the “gamification” strategies, i. e. points and titles that some programs or applications give each task is accomplished.
Being totally concentrated has to do with the state of “flow” discussed in the week 4 of the IDLE course. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi tried to understand the phenomenon by calculating the amount of information that our neural networks are capable of absorbing. He reached a number: only 110bps (bits per second). Listening to someone talking, for example, requires the processing of 40bps. That means, there are 70bps left in to use for distractions around. So we can scribble on paper or think in others to-dos while listening to the conversation.
Using the 110bps in an activity would be the equivalent of what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” that state of absolute concentration that makes us not even notice the time passing. Finally, the schools should debate more about the negative effects of distraction, the importance of the “white space” (or the sanctuary as we call at IDLE, the creation of physical spaces or times on the calendar for uninterrupted, unwired thinking and connection) and encourage students to apply basic practices to promote personal “white space”.
These practices include: create a student routine, make lists with the priorities of the day, learn to organize time and to collect relevant study materials, learn to book time to solve everything else outside of the studies (a good way to fend off distractions is to take them out of our heads) and learn to absorb and to reflect on what has been collected.