The Secret Path To Focused Learning In The Age Of Distraction

It’s a key buzzword of our time. What worrying over ‘The Age of Distraction’ really reveals is our great anxiety about maintaining focus and meaningful interactions, when we’re saturated with opportunities for immediate and trivial communications.

In 2017, we commonly understand that this ‘saturation anxiety’ is inextricable from our modern relationship to smartphones. One recent study shows that the average 18–33 year old checks their smartphone a shocking 85 times a day, while another reveals that the average attention span has fallen a third since 2000 (or around the time of the mobile revolution.) Clearly, any present-day solution to these problems has to take into account the smartphone question.

But distraction anxieties have been on the rise throughout the entire development of modern city-dwelling — the beginning of faster, busier metropolitan life. Writing in the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman points to an influential 1903 essay by sociologist George Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel claims that in the tech-saturated city “stimulations, interests, and the taking up of time and attention” turn life into “a stream which scarcely requires any individual efforts for its ongoing.” In other words, it’s common to be subsumed by multiple short-term engagements, which makes it easy to neglect the proper cultivation of personal interests.

This worry corresponds to another modern label, the ‘Age of Information.’ With so much at our fingertips, it’s easy to interact frequently and superficially with new knowledge. How, then, can we maintain focus and foster lifelong learning and development habits?

In this article I’ll argue that the key learning trends of microlearning, or bite-size learning, are far more than just fads: they allow us rethink distraction and channel it in important new ways, and furthermore are ideally suited to our current learning needs.

Firstly, let’s look at two psychological and sociological theories of distraction and the bite-size.

Distraction: An Ancient Survival Instinct?

Are we foragers for information? The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World is a new book co-authored by neurologist Adam Gazzaley and research psychologist Larry D. Rosen, exploring the brain science behind our evolution. It posits that the ancient survival instinct to seek food and shelter has resulted in our brains being hard-wired to sniff out data. As Eric Westervelt puts it:

‘Maybe the smart phone’s hegemony makes perfect evolutionary sense: Humans are tapping a deep urge to seek out information. (…) Monkey see. Click. Swipe. Reward.’

The book notes that distraction is a double-edged sword, and that our ability to multi-task can have a negative impact on longer-term planning. But the hi-tech world we now live in provides greater opportunity to streamline this information-foraging urge — rather than just coming across data in random pockets, we can build up collections of data-pockets over time, in bite-size chunks, through easily accessed sources.

Apps like Duolingo and Memrise tap into this psychology, harnessing it to provide immensely popular and effective learning systems which can be developed in the learner’s own time. In an ancient world each bit of data we gathered would serve immediate, short-term, survival needs — to be discarded in favour of seeking our next move. Now, we can use technology to drive learning systems which link together pieces of information over time — our random pockets become a tapestry.

Passive Interruptedness Or Active Act Of Willpower?

In a sense, reclaiming this foraging instinct is what Matthew Crawford taps into in his latest book, “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.” At least, he points to autonomy as a driving aspiration in Western societies, which leads to valuing the freedom and liberation to make choices. As Rothman points out, ‘the way we talk about distraction has always been a little self-serving — we say, in the passive voice, that we’re “distracted by” the Internet or our cats, and this makes us seem like the victims of our own decisions.’ But on Crawford’s account, ‘being distracted’ is re-framed as an active act of willpower and an assertion of autonomy:

‘It’s not just that we choose our own distractions; it’s that the pleasure we get from being distracted is the pleasure of taking action and being free. There’s a glee that comes from making choices, a contentment that settles after we’ve asserted our autonomy…. When you’re waiting to cross the street and reach to check your e-mail, you’re pushing back against the indignity of being made to wait. Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious.’

What if, rather than re-checking the same feeds, this feeling of an act of willpower could be harnessed to unlock real achievements and enable development? The power of mobile microlearning does just that. Furthermore, activeness and autonomy are at the heart of the whole philosophy of bite-size learning: delivering information in carefully designed chunks means that learners must keep re-engaging, checking back in with the content, and unlocking the next section whenever they decide to click.

Crawford argues for the way in which this act of assertion has been co-opted by corporate tech companies and marketing firms — any consumer choice becomes identified with liberation and happiness. But mobile learning goes far beyond just being able to satisfy preferences within a limited framework of choice: it enables active, autonomous development, reclaiming individual empowerment among other so-called ‘technologies of autonomy.’

Of course, the gamification of learning is not the same as the commodification of choice that we find in, for example, entertainment or consumer apps. Indeed, the rising tide of chatbot-based learning systems have been nicknamed ‘invisible apps,’ because they are accessible without maintaining a specific application. With no account creation necessary, no loyalty scheme in place, no specific downloading and system maintenance, mobile microlearning is moving beyond traditional consumer frameworks for smartphones, happy to coexist with our other social media feeds rather than demand sole attention.

Going With The Grain: Why We Shouldn’t Fight Bite-Size

In his article ‘2017 The Age Of Distraction’, Brendan McCaughey dissects the term distraction as ‘dis-traction: the inability to get traction.’ He’s not far off, with the root of each originally meaning drag or pull (and so, to be pulled away).

Let’s use this approach to think about immersive learning, and how we can redefine ‘immersion’ to adapt to 21st-century lifestyles and needs. Again, we take meaning from the Latin root immergere, ‘to dip/plunge/sink into.’ Notably, immersion might connote being wholly and deeply involved with something, but it doesn’t have anything to do with duration. And this is where the bite-size philosophy again becomes key — by radically changing the way we absorb information to focus on short, effective bursts which provide what is actually a more thorough immersion. Focus is strengthened and maintained, rather than waning over time.

Yes, bite-size learning helps us reclaim the philosophy of immersive learning — it puts the learner, in autonomous control over manageable chunks, at the heart of the action. Conversely, in ‘The bite-size revolution: how to make learning stick’, Mind Gym point out that traditional workshop learning operates a ‘one size fits none’ style, working at a pace that will inevitably suit only a minority of learners at any one time.

This is why microlearning is not just a trend: it helps us redefine immersive learning for a modern age, built to suit our distracted minds and our fast-paced modern schedules.

A final thought: microlearning seems not only tailored to our free time and pace of life, but to provide the kind of learning which many modern societies actually require. Firstly, as individuals, we’re more highly educated than ever before. What we want as learners, then, is not necessarily the fundamentals of an education, but to build on this by branching out of our own accord, and developing a richer variety of skills and interests. Secondly, as working members of society, we operate in workplace environments which have accelerated in scale, global scope, and pace of communications. So, as workplace learners, we need new styles of training and development to help us grow at the same pace. Microlearning is ideally suited to develop individuals and professionals in the ways they really want, providing effective pockets of deep immersion within a rapidly-moving society.

Chatterbite is an elearning start-up delivering bite-size courses over social messenger apps. We’re excited by the future of elearning, and are currently specialising in onboarding. Check out our website for a free demo, and follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Medium for more.

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