Who says young people have short attention spa – ooh, a bird!!

Any good insect-themed bowl requires time, concentration and commitment.

There is a general assumption these days that ‘the youth’ have lost their ability to concentrate on any one thing for more than fifteen seconds thanks to the scourge of the Internet and television and the general overwhelming bombardment of stimuli with which our premature consciousnesses are forced to deal with on a daily basis. This is a rather insulting theory and goes alongside the ‘exams are getting easier’ and ‘children are getting oversexualised’ arguments which help to perpetuate a grumbling bitterness towards the Yoof of Today which we all thoroughly resent, thank you very much. But more than being insulting, this is a destructive theory as it has led to a very uncomfortable new set of theories and reasoning applying to teaching and communicating with younger generations. It is assumed that since our attention spans are so fleeting and our demand for stimulus so ravenous, we need interactivity, movement and fast-pacing when it comes to our learning and our entertainment. We are forced to endure lessons where resentful teachers make us play terrible ‘educational’ computer games where you walk through a human gut or conduct your own poorly-animated archaeological dig, we must write our homeworks in the form of kitsch Powerpoint presentations which somehow count as more stimulating than any other thing in the world because they are capable of making a bullet point zing across the screen with a noise like an old-fashioned camera taking a photograph in an empty tin can underwater. Because it involves movement and colours and sound effects suddenly a boring subject is supposed to be transformed into a whirlwind of intellectual intrigue, a source of knowledge so absorbing you lap it up like a greedy, greedy kitten.


Of course, interactivity in learning is very important; you will learn far more in doing something yourself than when you simply have someone read it to you in a drab monotone. Chemistry is a subject only made bearable by the fact that you work through the theories involved by doing your own experiments and making your own conclusions which can then be applied to the abstract content. However, this works well as an idea because there is a clear purpose to experimenting and it has a sense of being real-world valuable as opposed to some gimmick. And let us not fully dismiss gimmicks in themselves when they have valuable mnemonic use; a bunch of bored sixth-formers are much more likely to remember the theory of electron shells when they are made to whirl around the room (hopefully screaming ‘wheeeeee’), no matter how simultaneously humiliating they may find it.


But there is also a lot to be said for young people’s capacity simply to be interested. Give us a dry subject and of course it will take goons dressed up as the Vikings dancing around a psychedelic cartoon oyster to make us pay attention. Find me any middle-aged person who doesn’t react exactly the same way. But give us a reason to be interested and we will engage ourselves, or at least try; it is hard to deny that we all remember and learnt best from the teachers who found their own subjects interesting and vital and did little more than inject their own enthusiasm and interest into their teaching to make it work. When our wonderful German teacher taught us about the Wall, she told us about her own experiences and gave us an idea of the collective German feeling at the time and without having to do anything more than tell us the story of what happened we were hanging on her every word.


Still, it is not the ‘youth’ that really concern me when it comes to this question. The people that are really at risk from the ridiculousness of these assumptions are the really little ones, the ones that are still coming to terms with the complexities of putting on trousers. Every time you make an assumption about a certain group, you risk perpetuating that assumption or even causing it to become true in the first place. Yes, little kids have short attention spans, but children have always had short attention spans to a certain extent, even back in the days when people like to believe they sat for hours at a grassy riverbank fishing with a length of their mother’s sewing cotton. No, kids have always been stimulus-hungry piranhas, devouring one activity for a couple of minutes before swarming over to another or simply staring with a menacing underbite out of the empty preyless waters. Give them something that they can truly be interested or engaged in, however, and it is a doddle keeping their attention; there have been times when I have managed to avert complete meltdown with kids of friends or family simply by teaching them how to make origami water balloons and letting them quietly be fascinated for a good half hour. 


We are making a huge mistake by pandering to this imaginary child who only likes things that are multicoloured, flashing and change subject and backing music every minute. We are setting them up to expect that kind of interaction with the world and not giving them a chance to ever be fascinated in the first place, never silently offering them the question: ‘would you like to know more?’ For example: recently I watched two whole episodes of Blue Peter to give me some material to write about for a BBC application. Blue Peter, for those of you who don’t know, is a TV show for kids presented by a trio of grinning Bright Young Things who take the viewer through a series of different items to do with everything and anything that is interesting or relevant. In the past, in any given show, you might have seen a really good report on how buildings are demolished, an item on show dogs and a performance of what they can do, a musical number, a feature where one of the presenters briefly joins the U.S. Marines and a ‘Make’ where they construct a fashionable London bistro for your Barbie out of a cardboard box and PVA glue. It is a marvellous idea because it fits exactly that young mindset where you are constantly full of a million questions about everything and you haven’t yet decided quite what you don’t want to know yet. But – good grief. Ten years ago a report on demolishing buildings would have been four or five minutes long and contained lots of good explosion videos, an explanation of how they stop the buildings falling on other buildings, an interview with a demolisher and a final climax where the presenter gets to blow something up himself. Now, the item would have been a minute long, and would have run thusly:

(videos of explosions set to a well-known Muse track)

Presenter: Woah! When a building gets in the way, you’ve got to get rid of it somehow!! How exactly?!
Builder: Well, we use dynamite to – 
Presenter: AWESOME! (presses plunger and explodes building in the background)
Presenter: Amazing! This has been really ground-breaking!! Back to you in the studio Mindy! (cut back to frantic-looking blonde in technicolour set)


It was atrocious. Each of the items was so short and superficial that there was barely any time to even understand what the topic was. The Blue Peter make, which used to be so complex and beautiful, was this time simply a hideous ‘rabbit’ made by stretching two elastic bands around a flannel. Of course children are going to have fragmented concentration if that is what they are being fed! Give them a mediocre thirty-second-long video of a pen factory and they’ll be interested for 30 seconds; give them a great two-minute long item about pen factories and they won’t complain at all either.

This is what grieves me about my work. I spend forty-five minutes with children pelting various activities at them as if they were dogs being encouraged to chase different coloured balls across the room. That isn’t even far from the kind of activity we have to do with them. We have to make everything a short game and get the kids leaping and running and sitting down and standing up and singing and repeating…and yes, often they beg for the time when a particular game will come to an end but that is less to do with their own lack of attention than the fact that the game is simply poor. They love stories. They love games where they can draw things or games that have more than one rule. They love learning the body parts by playing doctor for a good five minutes rather than frenziedly poking each other’s shoulders and noses for one. If you keep giving them new topics and seguing between them with transitions as subtle as getting them all to hop on one leg they will simply have a wild and fragmented experience and a fragmented knowledge of the language they are supposed to be learning to boot. 

Ultimately I fear the root of my resentment is the fact that I am not allowed to sit down with my kids for a good hour and do cutting and sticking with them. But I am worried that if we don’t ever raise the standards of our teaching to hold their attentions, they will begin to lower their capacities to be interested to meet our offerings, and that would be a colossal shame. Kids are curious about everything, why would we want to render them all a bunch of yappy-dogs, just barking at things that wiggle and squeak?

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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