Tuesday, November 06, 2018

I have a theory

by Rick Blechta

Tom’s post from Monday has a very important truth at its heart.

Speaking as a former teacher, I can definitely confirm that a large number of the students I taught — and I started 40 years ago now — had diminished capabilities for concentration. Since I taught instrumental music, this was a particularly thorny issue to navigate. If you have trouble concentrating, you aren’t going to do well learning an instrument or mastering a piece of music.

Sure, students losing interest in playing their instruments is a problem going back as far as, well, instruments. (“No, I don’t want to play lyre anymore, Daddy!”)

What I’m talking about is students having trouble concentrating for long enough to actually making even a little progress taming a tricky passage or learning new notes, rhythms, techniques, whatever. I would be working over something with a class and I could see the eyes beginning to glaze over here and there. The fidgeting would begin. Students would be looking at the clock or out the window. I knew then it was time to “change task” and try to reclaim the interest of my class. So I adopted a technique I dubbed “hit and run” — do a little bit of work here, then a little there and over the course of a few weeks’ teaching hope that I covered everything.

Talking this over with colleagues, it became clear we were all struggling with the same thing. Old teaching hands would say it always was a problem but that recently it had been accelerating.

Then I began to be curious about why this was happening.

We’ve never had TV in our house. My wife and I don’t like it and we decided that we wanted to give our two boys a chance to experience life without an “idiot box.” Sure, we knew they’d watch at their friends’ houses, gorge on TV when visiting Grandma, but we gave them lots to do when they were home and they were pretty good about their parents’ “oddness.”

One Christmas, they decided to pool the money they received as gifts and buy a small TV. We didn’t object (because they were cooperating with each other), but limited when they could watch. In order to spend time with them, I’d sometimes sit on the sofa with them and watch what they were watching.

And I was appalled.

There’s something in editing called “jump cuts”, little snippets of different camera shots or angles used to speed up “the action” in a scene. Jump cuts were all over the place, in dramas, comedies, music videos (tons of ’em there!), and especially in commercials.

It dawned on me that if this was what my students were watching, no wonder they were having trouble concentrating for more than two minutes!

Here’s the kicker: those students of mine are now in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and they have children and grandchildren of their own. TV (and movies) have made even greater use of jump cuts and rapid-fire camera angles to add emphasis and excitement to what they’re presenting.

Remember Mr. Rogers? If he’d wanted to start his show in the present day, he’d be laughed out of television executives’ offices. “Too slow!” “Too dull!” “Kids won’t sit still and watch this crap!”

I was lucky. I got hooked by music early on and saw the only way to success lay in being able to concentrate for long periods of time — with more than a dollop of patience thrown in. I realized innately that this was the only way to improve and I hungered to be better, so it was self-reinforcing.

Attention span needs to be taught, and we ain’t doing a very good job of it. Sure you can blame TV or movies or the internet, but the truth is fixing the attention deficit involves us taking control of what we do, how we spend our time, and how we teach our children.


Sybil Johnson said...

I'm not fond of the jump cut, though I have to say I don't remember seeing it much in the TV shows I watch. Maybe I've just gotten used to it, which I find rather appalling. I also think what causes shorter attention spans is multi-tasking at certain times like when you're watching TV. TV shows seem to want you to look at things on your phone/tablet/computer about the show you're watching while you're watching. I find that rather distracting. But, then, I'm old.

Rick Blechta said...

Not that old, surely!

Roland Clarke said...

I can see what you are saying for many reasons, including my TV producer experience. Jump cuts are just the tip of an iceberg, but the problem may also be the reason why TV changed. Chicken and egg.

But I grew up in the 50s and 60s with parents that restricted our TV viewing. I had an attention problem that today would be ADHD.

But I know why I was distracted - there were more exciting things to do outside the window. That was why I didn't concentrate. I suspect that pre-TV, there was still better things to do. For me. it's all a matter of attraction - give me a good book and I'm hooked, As for music, that held my attention - but then my family loved music. Maybe, I'm an exception to any rule.

Sybil Johnson said...

I was old when I was born. :->

Rick Blechta said...

Roland, you might well be an exception, although my son who was originally diagnosed with ADHD (turned out to be Asperger's) is also an avid reader and always has at least one book on the go.

I was just talking about the general population. Of course I had many students with good powers of concentration, very focused and generally my most successful students, but there were others had about maybe five good minutes to give you and then their eyes would glaze over until something new started.

Watching TV and movies now feels like being inside a pinball machine -- at least to me.

Thanks for your thoughts!