In the last few years, complaints about the amount of homework assigned in our secondary school have been escalating. Our school does not give a great deal of homework (most work is done in class) and I know that teachers have been assigning about the same amount of homework for the past 15 years. In high school, the homework that used to take students about one to two hours a day (including a half hour of reading) is now taking many of them five hours per day, including the weekends. The fact that homework is taking this long, when it shouldn’t, is an important problem that needs to be addressed. Parents often tell me that the problem seems to be a lack of ability to concentrate.
This has been worrying me for a while, so when I heard about the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, I was intrigued. The book is not specifically written for educators or with kids in mind. It’s written for the working adult who wants to be more productive and successful. Yet, as I read, I made constant connections to my students.
In today’s world, attention spans seem to be getting much shorter and all kinds of adjustments are being made for this. But the issue of shorter attention spans is especially worrisome for our students. Bombarded daily with hundreds of messages, videos, and bits of information, they frantically multi-task in order to keep up. Not only is multi-tasking notorious for producing shoddy work, but when we multi-task, the work actually takes us longer to complete. The internet is full of distractions that many adults have trouble ignoring. If adults can’ t manage them, how are these distractions affecting our kids? And what can we do to help them?
We need to explicitly teach our students how to concentrate and then support them as they practice. Newport explains that concentration is not a habit that can be turned on and off; it’s a skill that must be developed with effort. Although some people may learn to focus on their own, most students will need the support of their teachers and parents as they learn the skill of concentration and form the habits necessary to reinforce it.
Newport also talks about the need for down time and relaxation in order to rejuvenate the brain. However, when students are working, chatting, and watching videos at the same time, not only are they they unable to do great work, but their work takes much longer so they can’t relax and enjoy their free time. Because they never truly cut off from work, their stress levels remain high and many of them feel overwhelmed and/or depressed.
What can we do about this?
- Show students how multi-tasking affects the quality of their work and the time it takes to do it. Here’s a short lesson that may help them understand: http://davecrenshaw.com/multitasking-example/
- Reinforce the importance of turning off all distractions from social media, TV, YouTube, and chat groups while they work. Let them know that once they finish their work, they’ll have plenty of time to connect online.
- Teach students to focus on work by giving them increased time in class to work steadily and silently. Begin with short amounts of time for silently reading a novel, writing an essay, or solving math problems, and then slowly extend that time.
- Explain the need for down time — time to completely cut off from work in order to refresh their brains. If they turn off all distractions and finish their homework quickly, they’ll have time to relax and enjoy their free time without the stress of pending assignments hanging over their heads.
However, no matter what we do at school, most students won’t apply these skills if they’re not reinforced at home. Parents who worry that their children seem overwhelmed with homework and don’t have enough time to just be kids can try the following ideas. But remember, they need to be reinforced consistently in order to become habits.
- Help your child set up a work schedule. Work together: children need to be part of this process. Reinforce the need to begin homework quickly — it’s crucial to work first and relax later.
- Teach children to create a checklist of tasks to be completed and how to prioritize the work. What’s due tomorrow? How will you attack long-term projects?
- Have them come up with a time frame for finishing work, such as: “I think I can finish this in 20 minutes.” Setting an alarm can help keep them focused. This will help them learn to estimate their work time and productively plan their time.
- Unplug: No cell phone. No TV or videos. No internet (except for research, which should be supervised while the habit is being formed).
- DO give support. Sit next to them while they work. But DON’T rescue them. Instead, when they have a problem, say, “How could you solve that?” or teach them to jot down questions to ask the teacher the next day. Remember: the goal is independence.
- Down time: when the work is done, it’s time to relax. Let kids unwind doing things they enjoy.
The idea is to help students see that, with focus, they can finish work quickly, do a better job, and enjoy their free time so much more. Concentration is an essential skill that will help our kids succeed in whatever they choose to do, but most students won’t develop it on their own: they’re living in a world full of distractions and need adult support in order to focus for any length of time. Successfully teaching students to concentrate will take teamwork from both their school and their home. If parents work late, they need to find someone who can help their children learn good habits in order to support the concentration they’ll need to do well in life.
Distraction has become an epidemic in our world. Actively teaching concentration skills is the only cure.
June 3, 2018 Update: Check out this blog post by Eric Curts at ControlAltAchieve.com where he talks about the use of ambient sounds to help students focus.