Saturday, May 21, 2011

Concentration Spans

The declining concentration span of modern kids has been a popular topic in the media for a few years now. The theory holds that because the pace of our lives has increased so much, our attention cannot be held for as long as it once could.

There's definitely something in this- I see it in myself. Rather than read through a whole newspaper I tend to just briefly scan the news headlines and perhaps look at a couple of articles that interest me. I suppose this is the nature of the Internet. It encourages us to flit from one thing to another rather than read through a long report. (I'd like to see a quantitative analysis of this though- by what factor has the pace of our lives increased over the last 50 years say, and has our attention span decreased at the same rate?)

This article claims that boys can only read for 100 pages before losing interest. It doesn't say whether they were just fed up with what they were reading though. I remember being bored to death having to read Macbeth, A Tale of Two Cities etc 30 years ago and I was an academic kid. I wouldn't want to read Jane Austen now, never mind when I was 13, when I would much rather have read a book of war stories or alien invasions.

I can't help but wonder whether we put children off reading for life by forcing them to study deathly dull books that they don't want to read. Actually, do we call these books 'classics' just because they are old, rather than for the quality of their story lines? Not being an English teacher I have no idea whether this has been properly looked into. (Another opportunity for some PhD student).

Maybe these stories were good in their time but their old fashioned English and settings that we cannot relate to, prevent them from grabbing our attention nowadays. One thing's for certain, they aren't going to compete with a Playstation.

Either way, I suppose the most important question is: how do we lengthen children's attention spans and are they really that important?


Anonymous said...

Sorry I read the first paragraph then lost track.........a blue car drove past.

Don said...

Macbeth bored the pants off me at school as well - and I failed O level English Literature quite dismally. But the two modern novels we did for French A level I enjoyed immensely - largely because I identified with the characters - and I got a Grade A. I'm firmly of the opinion that books are meant to be read and enjoyed (which in most cases is what the author intended) rather than being studied to death.

As far as concentration spans go, I suspect the correlation is really with the level of interest in what you're reading/studying. Our lesson periods at grammar school in the 1960s were in fact only 40 minutes, whereas nowadays they tend to be more like an hour. I used to find my attention wandering after the first half-hour in some of the really boring lessons and I suspect that for an 11-year old, an hour is an awfully long time to focus attentively on something you're not enjoying.

TonyF said...



Anonymous said...

I had rather a heated debate with my son's English teacher when he had to learn Yeats' the Swans at Coule as one of the best poems in the English language.
I maintained that a good dose of Newbolt, Masefield and Kipling would have got the interest of the class much more - and might have led to an imbedded love of poetry.

I rather fear that he thought I was somewhat of a philistine.

On the other had, because we always have had lots of thrillers and sci fi in the house, he is now an avid reader of same.

Shakespeare was always much more interesting since we had school trips to see the plays performed in Stratford - must be a lesson there.

Boy on a bike said...

Give them a big box of Commando comics - always worked for me.

Anonymous said...


I have to agree with you on this:

Like you, I too was a pretty academic kid, and these days I read buckets!

I love books and reading - always have! But, being forced to read 'Cider with Rosie' or 'On the Beach,' two of he most boring books in the English Langauge, at thirteen was like torture!

Shakespear on the other hand I loved...

The main difference was the aforemention two books formed part of my English Language syllabus, whilst my education in Shakespear came under the aspicious of my English Literature teacher.

The latter brought it to life for me and my classmates, explaining the language, and the zingiest of the period.

Thanks to him, to this day I retain a love of the baird.

Kids really are forced to read some dusty old tomes, which don't inspire or teach them anything, on the other hand how often is the baby thrown out with the bath water? Too often children are forced to read the manic rantings of some black lesbian poet, not because the work has any value, but because; 'it must be good' purely because it was written by a black lesbian, and that proves how wonderfully diverse we all are!

I think a balance needs to be struck somewhere in the middle and / or some of the classic works explained in depth to the pupils on the receiving end.

Simply thrusting a copy of Wuthering Heights under the nose of a thirteen year old would probably turn them off the classics for life!!

Dack said...

I 'did' 'Macbeth' with my year 8s (a top and a middle set, tough school) as prep for GCSE. We watched the Jon Finch film and 'On the Estate' BBC version, studied some extracts (only) and focussed on quote analysis and themes (relating them to more modern contexts).

They started off with the usual 'Why can't he write in English/this is boring' etc etc, but by the end most - the rest at least had respect for it - appeared engrossed, and rather than a half term they voted (I like to give them some choice on what we study when I can) to continue in more depth for a full.

Getting them to make their own films was the big winner. Some did news bulletins, others filmed their own versions of scenes, one group rewrote the play in summary and filmed that.

Six of them persuaded a parent to take them up to see a version at the Globe - I hadn't realised it was on (my bad).

I love the play, and I reckon that made a big difference too.

Afterwards they voted - from a choice including easier/more 'modern' options - to study WW1 poetry.

But I agree on the concentration thing as a general point. That - and the 'success on a plate, please' attitude - is one of the biggest obstacles in the classroom.

Lilyofthefield said...

Don, I agree that especially for lower-ability classes, an hour is far too long a period for them to sustain interest in anything faintly academic.

On the other hand, my own 40 min lessons started within two minutes of the teacher's arrival (we didn't move rooms; the teacher did, except for tech, PE, science and art, and it saved a lot of wasted "settling" time at the start of the lesson), whereas at Hell High it takes a good ten minutes to get the class settled and another wasted ten minutes at the end with the tick-box plenary and the recording of the merits and detentions.

Squaddy said...

It's got nothing to do with lessening attention spans. When we had to sit down and concentrate for a protracted period of time, we were either disciplined enough to do it or we were "persuaded" to do it by our parents. Nobody wants to sit down and do something they don't like, but give them a computer game to play and suddenly they've got an attention span of hours.

Anonymous said...

Scott Adams (who may be a genius) had an image in a Dilbert cartoon very relevant to this:-

Imagine that your brain is a teacup

Now imagine that the modern world is a fire hose pumping, full bore, into that teacup.

Too true.

Anonymous said...

When I was a school governorin a primary school I would on a regular basis spend a morning with a class and help where I could. Invariably I would be asked to help some you lad with his reading. It always seemed to be boys and I began to look at what they were reading. In the main it was girl orientated literature. The boys of course were interested in football, fighting and war. I realised that all the staff except the head were female and had great influence on what was read in school. When I suggested that some action comics might not go amiss for the boys on the basis that any reading was better than none I was soon put in my place by the English co-ordinator who informed me that if the press/parents thought the children were being encouraged to read war stories they would hang me out to dry. I gave up a bit like the boys being forced to read girlie stuff.

Anonymous said...

I recommend two YA books by Cory Doctorow:

Little Brother
For the Win

Both have realistically-drawn teenagers as protagonists, both deal with issues relevant to both teenagers and adults, and both are well-written.

Like with all Doctorow's book, they are available for free download under a CC license, or can be purchased as regular print books.

We're using Little Brother as one of the novels studied in senior English, and many of the kids are reading For the Win on their own afterwards, which I think says something.

Anonymous said...

Most old books have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Only a few are still read and re-published now and known as classics. I think the very fact that they remain popular suggests they have a qualitative advantage over their forgotten peers.

Anonymous said...


Buckfast Felize said...

I have the same reaction to Greek Mythology pub quiz questions today as I had to The Merchant of Venice thirty odd years ago: 'Why does this crap get taught?'

Anonymous said...

I would love a class full of boys who 'can only read for 100 pages before losing interest'. I'm lucky if they can be bothered to read their own names on the front of their exercise books!
Mind you I am married to a guy who forgets what he has read by the time he gets to the bottom of the page so maybe things haven't changed that much after all.

Ben said...

I always found English Literature classes to be incredibly female focussed back when I was at school. All the English Literature teachers were female and every book was taught with the same drab feminist overtones that just sucked any little bit of fun right out of the book.

What with not being a teacher, I can't say whether this was the fault of the teachers or the syllabus. If teaching has been as beset as policing by the forces of political correctness then I'd be unsurprised to hear all those dreary new-left overtones came from the latter.

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