During a recent meeting with The George Lucas Educational Foundation, a Web site developer from Scotland's University of Edinburgh mentioned that he had just come from Japan, where he had observed young students simultaneously listening to their iPods, text messaging with their cell phones, and watching World Cup soccer matches. I was immediately reminded of the kids I see heading to school in the morning in San Francisco, walking, talking, listening to music downloads, and thumbing messages into their Blackberries.
Multitasking is a way of life for kids these days, and though we all do two or more things at once routinely, and think better of ourselves for this refractory skill, it's hard not to wonder whether today's middle school and high school students are losing another skill once considered admirable and essential: the ability to focus.
I once had the good luck to live on a small Greek island, back in the days before television, telephones, cellular communication, and the Internet had invaded such Shangri-las. I had moved to the island from New York City, and for the first time since I was a young kid meandering along in the small town where I grew up, I experienced a life of such simple clarity that I could spend half a day following one idea wherever it might lead. I lived on that island for the better part of several years, and there has been no time since then when my mind seemed more capable of real thought.
Life without distractions in the twenty-first century is not reality, of course. Even on that little island today, cell phones are ubiquitous and no house is without a television. It would be a throwback folly to imagine that children in America today can keep their eyes, ears, and brains fixed solely on the glittering prize of learning. Distractions are as old as education itself, whether from the simple yearning inspired by a spring breeze wafting through a classroom window or from the tumult of hormones in the ascendancy.
But, driven by the profit motive, new distractions are more abundant, and more intrusive, than ever before. Though the ability to do many things at once -- text messaging and listening to an iPod while doing geometry homework -- is a skill with much relevance in this overloaded world, the inability simply to focus on one thing bodes ill for those "Eureka!" moments that move civilization forward. We are disconnected by our connectivity, all afflicted to some degree with attention deficit disorder.
Much has been made of network television's role in shortening attention spans to the ten-minute segments between commercial breaks. But teachers these days may find themselves thinking that if they can get students to stay tuned for that long, they're doing pretty well.
Yet though much has changed, one thing stays the same: Focus is imperative. I have never known anyone who has succeeded in any field who was not able to focus. This doesn't necessarily mean the kind of laser focus of chess players, for instance, or professional golfers, or neurosurgeons. What it often means is just being able to stay in one's seat and tune out all the intrusions of modern life for whatever period necessary to get a job done, whether the job is to help a team complete a project or to do well on a crucial test.
The more we accept distraction, represented by new, diverting, and insistently intrusive technologies, as an irresistible force, the more we risk producing generations who have been nurtured to multitask miles wide and contemplate inches deep. No doubt, as this magazine has suggested, there are ways to utilize such abundant connectivity, and because there's no retreating from modernity this side of a monastic cell, teachers can be grateful for the cornucopia of resources technology offers. But we now are faced with yet another task: finding a way to bring back old-fashioned single tasking.