To say that we haven’t changed at all is probably incorrect. However, what is more important perhaps is the array of choices that we have now compared to the past. There seem to be two main variants or facets of distraction that are discussed in the articles. These are procrastination (doing an unrelated task, generally considered unproductive, to avoid having to do something else; in this case homework or studying) and then interest (doing an unrelated task because it is more interesting than doing homework or studying). In most all cases these have some overlap, but where the importance lies is not in drawing the line between the two, but in consideration of their relation to the individual.
It’s easy to conjure up the image of a bored teenager, apathetically watching TV or clicking at a flash game online, just doing it because it’s easier to continue that momentum than to gear up to actually work on homework or deal with whatever tasks need attending. Certainly there’s a place for relaxation and distraction, because life isn’t a game with a list of achievements to accomplish. It’s more dynamic than that. But then consider the image of Vishal, staring intensely at the screen for hours, watching and tweaking and watching and tweaking again, all for the sake of getting a few seconds of footage just the way he wants it. This isn’t distraction for the sake of escape; it’s something that interests him deeply. As troubling for it is for some of his teachers to see him distracted, to say that technology is the blame for his drop in grades is missing the point. The reason his attention is dwindling is because he’s pouring it into something that matters to him. When you find something in your life that really grips you, it’s going to take your attention away from whatever garners it least. And usually that’s schoolwork.
Rather than saying we can’t learn in the same ways as students did in the past, I would say that it’s more like we won’t learn in the same ways. Because so much of what we’ve gained from technology has become about choice, to try to use education models that stifle choice and personal direction and decision is to be fighting a losing battle. Which is exactly what we’re seeing.
I believe we do need to reconsider how we approach education. While our ideas and techniques for education have evolved over time, they have stayed inside a particular realm of understanding. This is the idea that we need to sit children down and get them to pay attention to what we think is important. We battle for their attention, and as time goes on and they are drawn to other things, we simply try to be louder than the distraction. We shout over it, and if that doesn’t work, then we try to disable the distraction or in some other way offer punishment to entice students to pay attention. They are talked at rather than talked with, and the goals of institutions simply being higher grades rather than well-developed and individual minds leads many students to feel that their own interests and ideas are not as important as how many hoops they are able to jump through.
As for what should be done about it, that is a trickier question. Two things stand out in mind though.
One is a talk from Ken Robinson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1A4OGiVK30) on connection with students in education. He talks about the usefulness of art and creativity in education, and about the importance of connecting students with themselves to help guide students to a sense of purpose.
The other is a piece written by Paul Lockhart, a mathematician (http://www.maa.org/devlin/lockhartslament.pdf) who is concerned about the methods and the general understanding about learning math in middle and high school levels. He explains that the current system for learning math couldn’t be more ill-conceived in both its ability to engage students and to actually teach mathematics. He recommends that students be taught in a way that encourages exploration, and gives a more wholesome picture of mathematics, rather than a pile of disjointed rules and procedures.
The main points that are at work here are the focus on students, and the focus on interest. When we have teachers who are more engaged with students, in environments where they are encouraged to look inside themselves more often, and to feel freer to ask questions and explore ideas, how the students think and what their interests are become more apparent, and from there teachers are able to help guide students through their own education. And when the students are leading their own way with teachers’ guidance, then I believe we’ll see a revolution in education.