Getting Past the Attention-Span Myth (Thoughts on Creative Focus)
There’s a common cultural assumption that “kids these days” can’t focus due to screen time. They simply lack the attention span needed to engage in deep work. But what if that’s not entirely true? What if this generation is capable of reaching a state of creative flow?
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The Attention-Span Myth
A few days ago, I shared the story of how my middle son spent hours lost the creative process of making a sketch animation video.
His older brother and younger sister spent hours tricking out the play structure in our yard. It now has a flag, a pulley system for passing supplies, a ramp, and a bench for hanging out.
I’ve written before about why play is vital for the creative process. But as I watch them play, I notice an interesting trend. Their play is focused. There’s a sense of deep work and creative flow going on. In other words, it is more structured and complicated than it first appears.
I’ve always viewed play as a break from mental focus. It’s a chance to be spontaneous and scattered and run around back and forth. But that’s not actually what’s happening at all. Yes, there’s a lot of movement. True, there are bursts of spontaneity. However, it’s all rooted in a longer, extended sense of purpose.
I’m sharing this story, in part, because I am being one of those obnoxious proud dads. But I’m also sharing this because I don’t buy into the myth that “kids these days” have short attention spans and can’t work on a task for hours. Watch kids play Minecraft or engage in cardboard challenges and you’ll see that kids can spend hours in creative play. And, while adult sales of books are on the decline, sales of children’s and young adult books continue to grow. In fact, studies show that children prefer physical books to books on screens.
The issue isn’t attention span. It’s engagement. No, it’s not just engagement. It’s empowerment — the kind of empowerment that happens when you are fully immersed in creative play.
Six Strategies for Cultivating Creative Focus in Students
So, how do we help students hit that place of creative flow? How do we help students stay focused? Here are a few ideas:
- Fewer interruptions: This was a hard paradigm shift for me to make in teaching. I remember assuming that students needed to shift to a new task every ten minutes or so and the result is that my students never had the chance to reach a state of flow. It felt risky to create longer stretches of time for my seventh and eighth graders to work. I thought they would get bored and check out. But that’s not what happened.
- More student ownership: My son chose the topic for his video. He drew the pictures himself. He wrote out the script. He worked at his own pace. And, while I shared a specific process, he was able to deviate from it in order to make it is own.
- Allow for breaks: One of the big take-homes from the book Rest is that sometimes you need to take a walk or switch to a mundane task in order to have a creative breakthrough. This is tough to pull off in a classroom, but I’ve seen teachers create spaces for “brain breaks.”
- Redesign the space: All three of my kids were comfortable where they were working. All of them shifted between sitting and standing. Each of them decided when they wanted quiet and when they wanted a little more noise. This is why I used to have standing centers in my classroom. The physical space shouldn’t inhibit a state of flow.
- Focus on motivation: Students will be distracted when they are forced to do section reviews in a textbook or take yet another multiple choice test. It helps to find ways to tap into students’ natural motivation and align that to the standards rather than trying to “spice up” boring tasks by making them faster.
- Embrace problem-solving: My kids spent the entire day solving two different problems. The first involved redesigning a play structure to make it more like a fictional base for their make-believe club (there’s a whole story involving magic) and the second involved making a sketch animation video into something that kids would actually want to watch. The tasks, audiences, and materials were totally different. However, they had a common element of problem-solving. Both projects involved a larger problem followed by several smaller problems. These problems create a sense of suspense which allowed them to focus for longer periods of time. Notice that it’s less about action and more about suspense. Too often, as a teacher, I tried to avoid boredom by creating more action and increasing the pace. It was the equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, with lots of explosions but no coherent problem that anyone actually cared about.
The bottom line is that students don’t have short attention spans. They can focus for hours on a single project. But it has to feel relevant and meaningful to them and they need to have the time and the space to accomplish it. It’s not easy in a world of school bells and curriculum maps. However, it’s something we should strive for. We should draw students in to the deeper, slower work of creativity — because when that happens, learning feels like magic.