In the early 1970s, a team of researchers embarked on what is now regarded as one of the most intense and consequential investigations into human development ever undertaken.
The group began collecting comprehensive data on more than 1,000 people in New Zealand from birth onward. Known as the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, the information collected as participants aged and moved through various stages of their life has provided fodder for hundreds of academic papers and has led to some of most important insights in behaviourial science in the last 50 years.
As their subjects navigated elementary school, one of the areas the researchers tested was the students' ability to pay attention and ignore distractions. Years later, they compared those results against where the students ended up in their early 30s. What they discovered was a child’s self-control, including his or her ability to concentrate, was the strongest predictor of future success – more important, even, than IQ and the socio-economic status of the child’s family.
Many studies and books have since confirmed the value of a student’s capacity to block out diversions in achieving academic success. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport, a computer-science professor at Georgetown University, makes the case that focus is the new IQ. "It’s become one of the most useful and prized abilities in our economy,” Mr. Newport wrote in Time magazine. Meantime, Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, argues there’s a need to teach kids concentration skills as part of the school curriculum, so important is it in the development of young students.
As Canadian children return to school, a roiling debate continues about what might be the biggest distraction they face today: the presence of personal mobile devices in the classroom. Where some see cellphones as a necessary and complementary teaching tool, others view them as a scourge, one which is wreaking havoc on a student’s ability to learn. The fact there is no consensus in the education community on the issue is evident in the hodgepodge of related policies. In some instances, there aren’t even consistent cellphone-use rules within individual schools, pitting teachers against one another.
Stephen Burns, a long-time math teacher at South Delta Secondary School in Tsawwassen, B.C., is in the no-cellphones-in-class camp.
"If their phone is in sight, it becomes the priority for the majority of kids,” says Mr. Burns. "They’re waiting for someone to text them. And in many cases, it’s their parents doing it or a student in the same classroom. They’re not paying attention. That’s why I don’t allow them.”
Mr. Burns believes the course material is difficult enough for kids; why make it more so by allowing devices that divert their attention? He doesn’t agree with those who say that when it comes to kids and their phones, the horse has left the barn.
“It’s never too late,” he told me. "Kids have to be able to part from their phones in certain situations. For me, the dinner table, family outings and the classroom are the three times this must happen. When kids go to basketball practice or hockey practice, where are their phones? They’re put away so they can focus on the task at hand. Well, school should be no different.”
He’s right. The argument some parents make that kids should be linked to their phones at all times is terribly misguided.
Many teachers, meantime, are frankly tired of fighting this fight and have given up. Others have decided it takes too much of their energy to police. But teachers and school administrators should develop some spine. When did we decide to let kids and their parents run the classroom?
In his book, Mr. Newport talks about something known as "attention residue effect." Research has revealed that switching your attention from one target to another isn’t as simple as it sounds. When this occurs there is "attention residue” – meaning you’re still thinking of the previous task even as you start another.
So, if you check your phone for texts or the latest baseball score, even if it’s only for a few seconds, your brain will operate more slowly for up to a half hour afterwards. Now, think about the scene being played out in our country’s classrooms and it’s not difficult to surmise that many students are working at a fraction of their full ability.
If we want our students to do better, let’s help them by banning cellphones in the classroom.