Emirates Education Platform


Distractibility preoccupies today’s self-help literature. The higher ed press is filled with articles with titles like “Why Your Students Can’t Focus.” The New York Times offers tips about how to “Stop letting modern distractions steal your attention.” You can also read about “Why young people may be more easily distracted than ever before.”

We apparently live in an age of distraction and procrastination.

Put the word “mindfulness” into Google’s Ngram viewer and you will see that the term’s usage shoots up like a rocket beginning in the early 2000s. Insert “distraction” and its sharp upturn begins about a decade earlier. Terms like “daydream,” “unfocused,” “absentmindedness” and “zoned out” soared starting in the 1980s.

My conclusion: something happened toward the end of the 20th century to make focus, attention and concentration a growing source of concern.

No doubt, the presence of notifications and text messaging has made it more difficult to maintain focus and easier to avoid challenging or demanding tasks. But the upsurge in concern predates the advent of the usual suspects: the smartphone and social media.

What, then, is the explanation? I’d attribute this to profound changes that took place in the nature of work and in expectations about close human relationships and even the teacher-student relationship. White-collar workplaces began to place a higher premium on teamwork, collaboration and group effort, while in affective and romantic relationships, expectations about emotional intimacy, self-disclosure and expressions of caring and understanding rose. In active-learning classrooms, expectations about student engagement also rose and student disengagement became more obvious.

Male traits privileged in the past—a laser-like focus on work, a solitary work style and taciturn introspection (now reinterpreted as uncommunicative, aloof and closed off)—were increasingly frowned upon.

At the same time, the growing presence within the workplace of women with caregiving responsibilities helped bring the issue of multitasking to public attention. The frequency of “multitasking” within Ngrams also shot up beginning around 1980.

To this list, I’d also add this: a lot of the distractibility that we see is a byproduct of mind-set—a deep pessimism about their personal and collective future—and of the shifting sociology of campus life, which is much more isolating, stressful and competitive than when I attended college.

Even before the dawn of the 21st century, social psychologists had begun to pay unprecedented attention to distractibility, now called mind wandering, and sought ways to counteract its adverse effects. New concepts, including metacognition and mindfulness, held out the promise of sustaining focus, enhancing attentiveness, maintaining concentration and asserting greater conscious control over cognition.

Why do our minds wander? There are many theories but few established answers. It’s been postulated that we daydream because we are bored and seek more interesting and engaging mental experiences. Or because we are stressed or suffer from overstimulation and cognitive overload and need to mentally check out and restore mental energy in order to enhance cognitive functioning. Or because our brains are wired to process information, and when we aren’t actively engaged, we take part in “task-unrelated thinking”: daydreaming, fantasizing or reflecting on recent or past experiences.

The essential point is that mind wandering is normal. Our minds are constantly active, consciously and unconsciously, and engage in activities that aren’t wholly under our conscious control. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that a loss of concentration is not a sign of moral weakness or deficiencies in character, though, certainly, some people, including those who suffer from an attention deficit disorder, are more prone to zoning out.

Only when we, as teachers, acknowledge and accept the fact that distractibility is an ordinary human trait can we develop better strategies to help our students sustain focus and attention.

How, then, can we help our students restore focus and attention? Some steps are straightforward. Eliminate classroom distractions and reduce external stimuli. Take steps to connect your students to one another, since bonds of connection and caring can combat distraction. Help your students become mindful when they lose focus. Take breaks to give your students opportunities to re-engage. Restructure, rethink and redesign classroom activities to make them more manageable and engaging.

But there’s something else we can and should do: strengthen students’ metacognitive capacities.

During the 1970s, Alan M. Leslie, an experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist, and John H. Flavell, who specialized in children’s cognitive development, developed key concepts that every classroom teacher ought to understand.

Leslie was instrumental in understanding how children develop a theory of mind—an ability to understand and interpret the mental states of other people, including their thoughts, beliefs, desires, intentions and emotions—through social interaction and observation.

Flavell, in turn, helped introduce the concept of metacognition, people’s ability to understand and reflect upon their own cognitive and affective processes. Metacognition includes:

  • Self-awareness: the ability to understand one’s strengths, weaknesses, preferences and biases and how one’s personality traits, thoughts, feelings and behaviors shape interactions with others.
  • Self-monitoring: the process of observing and evaluating one’s own thoughts, feelings and behaviors in order to better understand oneself and to make changes as needed. Self-monitoring involves paying attention to one’s own internal experiences, such as thoughts and emotions, as well as to external cues and feedback from others.
  • Self-regulation: the ability to control one’s thoughts, feelings, impulses and behaviors in order to achieve specific goals or to adapt to changing situations. It includes the ability to track one’s progress, identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments.

We, as teachers, can take steps to strengthen students’ theory of mind and their metacognitive abilities, which can, in turn, promote effective learning and success in other realms of life. The keys are to help students better understand their own and others’ motivations, emotions, goals and ways of thinking; improve their study strategies and better regulate their behavior; and develop a greater sense of their agency.

Literature and history can play an especially important role in developing empathy. I don’t mean simply a concern or sympathy for other people’s plight, but the ability to understand their point of view and to see things from their perspective. At a time of deepening partisan and ideological division and polarization, it strikes me as essential for students to learn how to see the world through the eyes of those whose values and behavior they passionately reject. The study of history and literature can do precisely that.

To strengthen students’ metacognitive capacities, introduce your students explicitly to the metacognitive strategies that can contribute to academic success: goal setting, planning and progress monitoring. Quiz students frequently so that they can monitor their learning and performance. Encourage students to discuss their learning with classmates and ask questions. Create in-class opportunities for self-reflection. Provide forward-looking feedback that identifies areas for improvement and helps students adjust their learning strategies.

Mind-set also matters. When students feel a sense of agency, they are more likely to take ownership of their own learning, actively engage in the learning process and persist in the face of challenges and setbacks and strive for improvement. Do try to instill a growth mind-set in your students. Do explain that intelligence and abilities can be developed through hard work, dedication and perseverance. Do praise students’ effort, not just their achievement. Encourage them to reframe their thinking: to believe that through study they will be able to master difficult content, concepts and skills.

But history, too, can help instill a sense of empowerment. Although in my own teaching I do emphasize the ambiguities of progress, there can be no doubt that much improvement has been achieved through determined and tenacious collective action. For all of this society’s failings, history nonetheless offers hope: that seemingly intractable obstacles can indeed be overcome and that even the most marginalized and oppressed groups in society have succeeded in reshaping the culture.

Not long ago, I read a recent article in the journal Metacognition and Learning that inspired this piece’s arguments. That essay shows how metacognitive strategies and mind-set training can increase motivation, persistence and a sense of self-efficacy and advance academic success. The authors, Leslie D. Frazier, Bennett L. Schwartz and Janet Metcalfe, make a powerful case that we in our role as classroom teachers we can help our students, especially those who for various reasons feel like impostors or feel deficient, reimagine their “possible self.”

As a historically minded humanist, the strategies that I will use to implement those ideas grow out of my discipline. I want my students not only to understand that people as intelligent and capable as themselves could commit (or tolerate) the most horrendous human evils, but that some people just like them were able to rise above their circumstances, to achieve a higher level of moral consciousness and bring about fundamental societal changes. I want these undergraduates to recognize that even the most exploited groups in society were somehow able to reflect on their suffering and transmute their misery into something deeper, richer and enduring.

In the end, our job as teachers and mentors is not just to teach or grade or advise but to inspire. That word comes from the Latin inspirare—to breathe or blow into, the way that divinity imparts truth into ephemeral human bodies. I am not myself the source of inspiration. After all, my students are well aware of my flaws, limitations and shortcomings. It’s the lessons that I impart and the stories I tell that arouse, move, stimulate and encourage.

What I take away, first and foremost, from the Frazier, Schwartz and Metcalfe Metacognition and Learning article is a reminder that we are not just sages on a stage or guides on the side or even learning engineers. Rather, we as instructors and mentors have an unmatched opportunity to help our students develop the self-regulatory and self-reflective skills, the self-awareness and self-concept, and the sense of agency and possibility that are essential to success within and outside the university.

More than that, we can help them reimagine and reflect upon their possible selves.

That’s a responsibility as important, indeed I’d say more important, than anything else we do. Let’s not evade that task.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Source link

2 months

Leave a Reply

We use cookies to assist you with navigation and analyze site traffic. If you continue to use this Site, you consent to our use of cookies.