Has listening become an elusive virtue? Amidst the plethora of screen options that assault our senses every day, maybe it is not a particularly appealing one? In today’s society, there are so many virtual reality options available that reality itself seems to have become less enticing. However, despite the fact that parents are encouraged to reduce screen time and switch off all devices well before bed time, apparently there is no actual research explaining the effect on children’s listening skills.
“All the stuff about attention spans reducing is probably nonsense,” says Andrew Przybylski, associate professor in the department of Oxford and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “…you really have to be using screens a lot on any given day to have a negative risk.”
“Probably,” but not definitely. Why pay for research, when you just have to spend time in any classroom to draw your own conclusions?
The idea that children are losing the ability to listen seems to me to be a slight misinterpretation of what is happening. Think about what children can do.
- Children can listen when it’s on television. They can focus very well on screens with moving pictures for long periods of time. Try to teach an important piece of information by the well-known old-fashioned method of Standing and Talking and it is necessary to break it up into small pieces to hold any kind of attention (and probably accompany it with some form of singing and dancing act). Even then, the fidgets will start (not amongst all children, some are exceptionally good at listening to anything). Stick children in front of a screen and they are instantly captivated (assuming you have chosen appropriate material), they sit in pin-dropping silence and the end is often greeted with cries of, “Can we watch it again?” The best example of this was a child whom I really didn’t think I was getting through to at all. He would sit with a dazed look on his face throughout the lesson and not respond to even the simplest of instructions. Until we watched a short video clip. Suddenly, he was the most animated child in the classroom – not only that but he could interpret nuances that the other children missed and could repeat the new French vocabulary afterwards. An extreme example but nonetheless true.
- Children can multi-task. Contemporary teenager (or if hands up in assembly are to be believed, children as young as Year 3, but that would fill another rant) can battle skilfully on a screen using a complex handset while discussing tactics with a friend on the other end of a mobile. What they cannot do, is answer the call to supper…
And so to the downsides of this mastery of screen focus and gaming determination.
- They are incapable of responding in anything other than grunts to a conversation while messaging a friend, even if texting consists only of a series of supposedly meaningful emoticons. But then, who can? It’s like trying to listen to two conversations at once. Yet we expect them to have heard our instructions without insisting that they put the phone down first.
- They are completely out of practice in the art of face to face conversation. Therefore, simple social cues that we assume they understand in a classroom, sometimes pass them by. Once, when I asked a child to stop talking because I was explaining something, he informed me that he was in the middle of a conversation. He did not actually intend to be rude. In fact, he was trying to be the opposite by not ending his conversation with his friend. (And yes, he had been given classroom rules before we embarked on an educational journey together and several times since!) If parents interrupt one another, or their child, or their child’s interactive game, how are they supposed to understand that it’s wrong to talk when someone else is talking?
- They cannot focus on one thing. Screens offer an endlessly changing landscape, with options to switch over when desired and a range of areas to focus on. I fully appreciate that watching a parrot on a screen who can not only talk but is learning to speak French by flying to various different French schools and interacting with the children is far more exciting than listening to their all-too-familiar teacher pronouncing French words, albeit in as many different voices as she can muster.
Today’s children are good at listening. There is such a huge host of media resources out there to listen to that they cannot help but be good listeners, even if they are dipping in and out of things. They listen in a different way to how children were expected to listen in the past. This is their experience of the world and this is the world of the future, that they will help to make a success. Being talked to for long periods of time is not their experience of listening. How can they understand that people talking means they should listen when so many adults talk to them with the television on in the background or while they (child or parent) are scanning a touch screen rapidly with their finger tips?
Lacking focus in the classroom leads to underachievement and hyperactivity. Those who listen are said to do much better in exams and have a more positive impression of school and learning. Often, the better listeners are also better readers because both skills require a certain amount of concentration and it is a well-known fact that the more pupils read, the better their understanding of the world and the wider their vocabulary. All this is true, but maybe we should start to appreciate the environments they have been brought up in and teach to their skills, rather than setting them up for failure.
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