A recent newspaper article details plans to teach schoolchildren a skill they should have learned at home: how to concentrate.
Every US, Canadian, and UK kindergarten teacher knows that the class coming in will contain children for whom English is a foreign language; children who do not know their basic colors, or numbers up to 10; children of all socioeconomic levels whose households are so poor in spoken language that by the time the kids reach five years old they have heard 32 million fewer words over the course of their lives than their age-mates in language-rich families.
That children begin school on an unfairly tilted playing field is well-established.
Until recently, however, children began formal education with varying degrees in their ability to concentrate. Kids whose parents frequently read aloud to them exhibited more understanding that some things – for example, listening to the teacher’s instructions – had to be attended to with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of attention. Part of a kindergarten teacher’s job is to help all students learn school-time norms: keep your hands and feet in your own kind and friendly space; raise your hand for help; use your “indoors voice”; share the materials offered in class so everyone gets some.
But teaching concentration? That, it appears, is a new task for everyone in school, with regard to every student.
Why, you ask. Two words: social media.
It’s not just Facebook anymore. In fact, FB is old hat. Now it’s . . . well, the list gets longer every day. And ever younger children are fooling around with computers, tablets and smartphones, even if they have to borrow them to get going.
I use that expression – fooling around – on purpose. As students dive deeper into social media, as they email and text and tweet, not only do they use up time and energy, they adapt their brains to the rapid-fire joys of social media. What goes out the door is concentration, the ability to focus on one thing for a long time. The kind of absorption you see – okay, used to see, hopefully still do – on the faces of children building with Lego or observing a country stream and its myriad animals. The sort of raptness that differentiates the human brain from those of cognitively lighter-weight animals.
It is a profoundly human ability to concentrate on a single attractant without the expectation of being fed. A leopard may focus on a wandering animal, but only in order to minimize its dash. If the prey moves closer, the leopard will need to expend less energy on a shorter run. A primate sitting beside an insect mound with a stick to insert and pull out full of crawling aperitifs looks like it’s concentrating, but again, it is in the service of food.
Naturally, parents need to teach concentration at home. If they fail to do so, teachers must, because every child deserves the opportunity to learn deeply, to discover profoundly, and to feel as though the time spent in concentrated observation and study is its own gift.