A Case for Teaching Focus
For a handful of months now, I’ve been engaged with a project that I believe to be fairly unique in its nature: assisting in the teaching of an AP Computer Science high school class — over the internet. Sounds crazy, right? On given days during the week, I video chat with a classroom full of students in order to try to help them bolster their programming skills, communicate computing ideas through my lens as a software engineering professional, and establish a rapport with the students. The program that I was able to conduct this through is called TEALS; sponsored by Microsoft as part of its philanthropic endeavors, and aimed at spreading quality computer science knowledge nationally. It’s been an incredible experience, to say the least.
I absolutely love teaching. There is an indescribable thrill and pride in seeing a student break through a mental or physical challenge, and emerge with that triumphant look of, “I get it!” Some of my former teachers have been inspirations for me in my continuing work and education. A teacher can occupy a special role in the life of a student that can fill in crucial but missing areas of emotional connection, friendship, or guidance — beyond simple intellectual shepherding. For these reasons, I find my connections with students equally special; each mind is so creative and open, hungry for knowledge and the opportunity to explore a complex and frequently amazing world. I strive to be, for my students, who my favorite teachers were to me.
It was my truly romantic love of teaching that recently led me to feel a commensurately disappointing realization when I had the opportunity to visit my students in person. I traveled to their school, and for three days, I sat in on my class, and a handful of others, to observe what a modern high school looks like. What I saw swirling around me left me feeling a nauseating discomfort that came with what I believe to be a profound realization. The school was an environment that was as close to a physical embodiment of “noise” as I think I have ever experienced. To what I believe to be no fault of the students’ at all, they seemed at the mercy of their devices: laptops beeping, phones buzzing, or headphones always in. Students’ learning seemed to be damaged by addictive technologies, and teachers did not seem to know how to help.
I’d like to describe what I observed during my time at the school to illustrate an issue that I believe is unparalleled in its threat to the learning of students — young or old: distraction. As the prescription to this diagnosis, I would also like to offer a solution that I see as crucially unavoidable if we are to put upcoming digital technology generations on a path towards success in our distracting world: learning to focus.
The Modern Sea of Noise
I have to begin by saying that I was pretty surprised by the amount of distracting background noise that existed in this school. Perhaps making the problem even worse than some other schools is that the school at which I assist teaching is a technical Magnet school; which means that no matter what the students are learning, it must fit within a broader goal of molding minds into those of technology gurus who can demonstrate proficiency in programming, knowledge of electronic hardware, and skills derived from modern business practices. It is certainly an admirable goal, but it comes with the problem that every student is then sat in front of a computer screen and expected to not watch YouTube, chat on Discord, or browse the internet, just because a teacher told them not to.
How can students choose wisely between either instant, technological gratification, or more arduous self control when faced with frustrating challenges?
Technology is distracting enough for me as an adult. As a software engineer, I have taken explicit steps to set up my work environment in a way that limits the built-in distractions that modern operating systems and applications love to throw our way. From my previous studies of the effects of technology on society, I know that the immediate satisfaction of checking emails, or scrolling through social media is incredibly addicting; designed that way on purpose to make inordinate amounts of money from users’ attention. I can hardly imagine how a teenage student is expected to automatically know how to both be interfacing with a purposely addictive machine and also be present enough to learn content.
I observed that the predominant method by which the technology surrounding students interfered with their minute-to-minute tasks was that it served as a relief valve at the slightest hint of discouragement. Any stress that came from growing tired of reading a historical passage, or from being stumped while altering an algorithm, was mitigated by immediately opening a YouTube video, checking Snapchat, or hopping on Discord.
It is a fact that to get work done, we must be diligent and have grit in the face of discouragement — which is not easy by any means. It was clear to me that technology covertly altered the development of coping mechanisms students needed to push through challenges as they navigated the landscape of learning. Even if students sought to be better at being continuously engaged, which I am sure many have, this can be very difficult without guidance. Unfortunately, it also seemed that their teachers had either no interest, or no ideas, to try to help them resist distractions. Instead, students fell prey to the sway of easy dopamine many times throughout their school day.
As a teacher myself, I certainly also sympathize with instructors, and understand that these problems are almost impossible to solve through any type of authoritarian means (not that this should even be the goal). If no alternative methods to encourage focus occurred to you, as an instructor, the problem would likely seem intractable and endlessly frustrating. There is no way to police every student during every minute of a period: ensuring that they are on task, and unplugged from distractions. I believe that what logically follows is that the only solution to such a problem is that students must engage in their own self control. Thus arises the big question: how can students choose wisely between either instant, technological gratification, or more arduous self control when faced with frustrating challenges?
Learning to Focus
I firmly believe that focusing is a skill that should be taught. If you think deeply about your ability to concentrate and work hard, you may realize that it is a learned skill that you acquired over time as you slogged through years, or even decades, of frustrating engagement with difficult tasks. When we’re not taught how to focus, we often end up learning through trial by fire. If you had instead been coached in the art of focusing, do you think you would have both saved yourself a lot of frustration, and been able to achieve more? My guess is: yes.
Once you know how the mind works, you can control it; and once you control it, you can focus it.
About a year ago, I discovered that I was not the only person who thought about focusing as something that should be taught. In a TEDxReno talk, Australian Hindu monk, Dandapani, describes his experiences learning to focus. His voice is soothing and calm as he speaks to the audience. As a child, he explains, he was constantly unfocused, and reprimanded as a result. If he was born only a few decades later, he likely would have been labeled A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. He asks the audience, “How many of you were taught in school how to concentrate?”; about two or three hands. “How many of you were told in school to concentrate?” and the audience breaks out in laughter as many more hands are raised in the air.
Dandapani beautifully elucidates what I had held as intuition for years:
“…most people can’t concentrate today for two reasons: one is, we’re never taught how to concentrate, and the second is, we don’t practice concentration. So, how can you do something if you’re never taught how to do it? And how can you be good at something if you never practice it?”
My mind flooded with sensation as this simple, logical explanation made it all click for me. Of course so many of us cannot concentrate. We live in a world of distractions and nobody helps us learn how to avoid them. We spend most waking moments of each day immersed in noisy, distracting environments, and spend little to no time intentionally practicing concentration. Dandapani also acknowledges the role that technology plays in distracting us. He masterfully explains:
“Technology in itself is not a bad thing; it’s actually a beautiful thing: as long as we’re in charge of it. But, if every time your iPhone beeps or makes a sound, and you turn to it, and you go, ‘Yes master… How can I serve you today?’, then you live in that world of distraction.”
We too often allow our technologies to use us. We think ourselves “users” because we’re given usernames and accounts, but in a way, we may gain more insight from thinking of ourselves as “users” akin to drug users. The instant gratification we get from modern technology is more like the instant gratification we get from drugs than we often realize. Our addictions to technology can truly make us slaves to our devices. However, if we learn to control our attention, avoiding the urge to give in to the constant beeps and buzzes, we will likely be able to harmonize with our tools in a much more productive way. Our guru of focus teaches us that, “once you know how the mind works, you can control it; and once you control it, you can focus it.”
Modern school systems — especially those with a technical bend, filled with laptops, phones, and other “smart” devices — must adopt practices of teaching focus if they are to enable success in the high-tech world. It’s not the students’ faults at all that they are so distracted. They’ve grown up in a world full of addicting, digital immediacy, so of course when they’re in the classroom, they unconsciously succumb to its enticing stress relief. I could easily imagine my students flourishing in their brilliance if exposed to a curriculum of concentration. As a passionate educator, I truly become overjoyed when thinking of the prospects of students who are calm, focused, still fun and creative, and able to express their magnificent talents in the classroom.
Beyond being able to comfortably divorce from addicting technology, there are many examples of how learning to be mindful and focused can yield other tremendous benefits to students. The podcast, What Were You Thinking, produced an episode called, “It Isn’t Spirituality, It’s Neuroscience” during which they explore stories from teachers who teach mindfulness in their high schools and universities.
The aim is to understand how best to coach the developing adolescent mind. Dan Siegel from UCLA, and the host, Dina Temple-Raston, illustrate that stress hormones in the brain have been shown to slow the process of building and strengthening neural connections during the learning process. If educators can help students reduce stress through mindfulness, it seems that even their brain’s growth could be accelerated during learning. Bita Moghaddam, the head of the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at Oregon Health and Science University, says that her colleagues measured student learning during mindfulness sessions, and observed actual, positive physical changes in the brain after meditation.
There is so much more literature detailing the benefits of practicing mindfulness and learning how to focus that at this point, implementing these regimens in schools seems like a no-brainer. It’s no secret that the education system in the United States ranks far below many others globally. My school is just part of a wide-scale problem. The Pew Research Center cites the Programme for International Student Assessment conducted on OECD countries to show that the United States ranks, out of 71 counties: 24th in science, 38th in mathematics, and 24th in reading. Perhaps other countries have solved the puzzle of harmonizing technology with learning, or perhaps they simply leave technology at the doorstep. But as long as U.S. students are unintentionally distracted in school, those numbers seem to have little to no chance of improving.
By refocusing the education system in the United States, there may be a chance to reverse a depressing trend of under-performance from students. Obviously there are other, more systemic issues that must be addressed as well, but teaching students how to focus may help along the way. The science and motivations seem clear. All that is lacking may be the courage or imagination required to implement systems that could truly allow students to reach their greatest potential. I believe that the creative minds I met could reach incredible heights if only guided toward a path that beautifully melds calm, creativity, and focus. It seems like such a strategy would only yield rich, and long-lasting benefits; so, what are we waiting for? Let’s take a deep breath, clear our minds, and help bring about an education system that students deserve.