In a world of Snapchat, Twitter, and WhatsApp, how can we help students focus?

Technology can be used for good

Today's students are bombarded by digital distractions at every turn, but educators should still embrace technology for learning, one expert argues. 

nprEd's Eric Westervelt spoke with Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist and a professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) who co-authored the new book new book, "The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World," about the mechanisms involved in distraction and how they can be overcome.

Gazzaley explains that humans have an exceptional ability to set complex goals, but that competency deteriorates with multiple tasks that capture our attention.

"When we switch between tasks, we suffer a degradation of performance that then could impact every aspect of our cognition from our emotional regulation to our decision making to our learning process, as well as real world activities like school and work and safety on the road," he says. 

Technology doesn't have to be distracting

Working memory is essential to cognitive control, but becomes more difficult with more information that we are forced to "filter" in order to focus on the task at hand. For example, it's tough to pay attention in class with distractions like outside noises. 

Gazzaley says an influx of technology is contributing to our heightened levels of distraction, from text messages to video games. And that's a problem for learning outcomes. Gazzaley discovered in research that switching from one demanding task to another has a negative effect on performance. And it's not just academics that take a hit—distractions can lead to behavioral issues like stress and anxiety.

But technology is not the enemy, Gazzaley stresses. Technology is unavoidable in our modern world, and we shouldn't be trying to suppress it. 

Don't fight it—embrace the smartphone as a tool for success

"We have to wrap our heads around how we can re-imagine technology as a positive force on our minds," he says.

Technology can actually be a boon for learning, Gazzaley says. He points to UCSF's research examining the positive benefits of video games as one example.

While it's important to learn how to focus on one task at a time, taking students' technology away isn't the answer. Educators must embrace technology as an essential part of students' lives.

"There needs to be some positive acceptance that young people are going to," Gazzaley says (Westervelt, nprEd, 11/5). 

Texting your students can actually help them achieve their goals

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