Reclaim students attention by delaying gratification
Attention, and its precursor interest, are essential ingredients in the recipe for learning but unfortunately it seems as if they have never been harder to find.
In the age of technology, having unrestricted access to information at our fingertips has in many ways transformed our world. Yet this endless stream of stimuli has come at a cost. Removing effort as a barrier to satisfaction has redefined our expectations and largely stripped us of the substantial and lasting pleasure of delayed gratification—the pleasure of becoming interested in something, deciding to pursue it, spending days, months, or years doing so, and really learning it.
Education is one of the most valuable forms of delayed gratification. Students often have no sense of the value in learning about possessive nouns and improper fractions; however, as adults we understand that this content, and more importantly, the persistence it requires to learn, are deeply essential for living fruitful and fulfilling lives.
What example are we setting for students when we ourselves are enslaved by our YouTube recommendations, our Instagram feeds, our TikTok auto-scroll, or our Netflix accounts? As many of us grow older, our desire to learn dwindles and we become content with this simple consumption. To most people, this is acceptable; this is the society that we live in. Typically we spend our formative and young-adult years learning, finding a career or a trade, and figuring out how to support ourselves with it. Yet our youngest members of society, who have this entire adventure before them, are being enslaved themselves at younger and younger ages by the dopamine-devouring forces of media. And the most disappointing part is that we are allowing this to happen.
As a tutor, I see the manifestations of this daily and, unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these ill effects. It is too convenient to use media as a stand-in for child care, too easy to meet our children’s deep need for attention with a tablet, and oftentimes, too commonplace to question. It devastates me to consider how this will harm children in the long run. I fear a future where adults who were deprived of attention and care growing up are consequently unable to provide it to others, where compassion and empathy become rare sentiments.
We must confront the question of what we can do about this.
There are no easy solutions, but working with kids towards a solution is deeply rewarding.
Encourage children to take on long-term endeavors like learning an instrument, building something, practicing drawing, caring for plants, reading a chapter book series, or improving at sports. These efforts cannot be completed in a single sitting or an evening. Children will struggle at first and be challenged. Helping them train their response to this initial pressure is one of the most important ways we can influence them. Reassure them that the pleasure derived from these activities, despite being seemingly trapped far in the future, is actually found in these smaller efforts which build upon themselves to become something greater, something which no one can take from them.
Remember, the root of this issue is that too often we look for easy solutions—we want a shortcut. By not taking shortcuts we can re-train our minds and set an example for those who look up to us. Delaying our gratification is not “the long way,” it is the right way, and the impact it can have on attention is profound.