Should You Be Accommodating Short Attention Spans?

This is the second in a series of five posts commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators engage in reflective practice but reject many of the practices of progressive American education because the practices and the principles those practices reflect conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.

Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In an earlier article, I commented on the third truth.  In this article, I’ll move back to the top of Maya’s list.bored-childbored-child

Truth #1: “Kids of all ages have a short attention span [sic], so educators need to divide their lessons into short, engaging, and fun segments that will keep kids engaged.”

Many of the Singaporean educators I spoke with, particularly elementary school teachers, described the benefits of making young kids complete long and demanding academic tasks.  Kids spend hours learning how to write thousands of complex Chinese characters. From grade two onward, they take exams that last for 90 minutes in each of the four major subjects.  Yes, that’s right: seven years olds can sit down and concentrate on math for an hour and a half.

When I expressed surprise (or shock and horror, to be more precise) over this [to parents and educators]…none of them seemed to think it was asking too much to make a young child sit down and focus on a single task for an hour and a half. “These tests and activities help train our children to shut out distractions, focus their minds, and concentrate,” said one teacher.  Said a parent, “It is important to teach our children to focus for extended periods of time.  That’s a very important skill.”

I don’t have enough experience in elementary classrooms to comment with any authority on whether it is realistic to expect that American elementary students focus on a single task for 90 minutes, but I think it is unlikely that any American elementary teacher would enjoy the experience of attempting to do so.  That said, teaching children to focus and to concentrate on a task is certainly a worthwhile effort.  If it is true that American children today have shorter attention spans and are less able to focus than their counterparts in earlier generations, should Christian educators simply cave in to cultural reality and accommodate, or should we strive, instead, to help our students expand their capacities for concentration?  I contend that we should help each child, incrementally, to increase her ability to focus on worthwhile tasks for extended periods of time.

Fundamentality, education is change (Romans 12:2).  The child is changing intellectually and spiritually – she is growing.  Part of that is growth in ability to concentrate.  It is absolutely necessary that we sometimes accommodate, but let’s not be satisfied at that point.  The goal of accommodation is to provide the scaffold that allows the child to build at an appropriate level.  In this case, the wise teacher will help her build her ability to focus on meaningful tasks for extended periods of time.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.

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  • Edward Earwood

    Well said, my friend. As a Christian educator, I must constantly keep in mind that the purpose of teaching is to bring about change. I was thinking recently about Norman De Jong’s book “Teaching for a Change: A Transformational Approach to Education. As you know, he advances the necessity of teaching for change, and that would include the expanding of the attention capacities of our students. Spot on with your thought that accommodation is not an end in itself; rather, accommodations is a means to building a student’s capacity for learning. Thanks for taking time to write.