I read an interesting article the other day on education. I then proceeded to read the comments, and was immediately disappointed that such detailed comments from teachers, professors, and parents closed with almost a hand-wave dismissal that the new generation’s short attention spans were to blame.
In Texas, they’ve very recently implemented new STAAR and End of Course testing. I’ve taken a look at some of the practice material for Algebra 2, and I was, quite frankly, astounded. For the record, I had a straight 100 average in Algebra 2 as a freshman for the entire year. The practice material, from the very first page, included things I hadn’t learned until the end of Pre-Calculus the next year. I don’t know whether this is an isolated case or part of a more prevalent trend, but hand-waving the issue by blaming it on shorter attention spans is a remarkably ignorant thing to do. The gap between generations is much more a problem of perception and preference than performance. High school students of the present are perfectly capable of maintaining their attention for the same period of time their teachers were able to when they were high school students. What’s my evidence? How long do you think it took me to write this paragraph? I didn’t tab out a single time while writing it, though I did, admittedly, reach over my keyboard for a bottle of water. In fact, out of my peers, I probably lead the most internet/iPod-dependent lifestyle, yet they consistently ask me how I manage to score so well on standardized testing.
I will concede, however, that AP exams have dropped material that may be deemed “hard” over the years. Why does this matter when only 65% of the maximum score constitutes a 5, though? Most of these exams exempt introductory classes. The material that has been retained challenges the student’s critical thinking and understanding of the theory behind the processes. Is there any gain in including a more advanced problem instead of a problem that requires complete mastery of the basics?
Here’s an interesting thing to think about, though. Assuming that the younger generation does have a shorter attention span, how could this be advantageous? My strategy for tackling more difficult analytical questions in English tests consists of looking at it from several different perspectives, context, detail, tone, and the like, from looking at specific lines to looking at the overall purpose of the reading material. I find that most of my peers get bogged down on simply staring at the problem, hoping that they will arrive at an epiphany and magically know the answer. This doesn’t work. In order to gather as much evidence as possible, sometimes you need to just “switch tabs.” On the flip side, I know incredibly smart people who get bogged down on these same questions because they’re overthinking them. Again, look at it from a different perspective. Being able to switch helps. It just doesn’t help if you’re doing it incessantly, but judging from the number of people who hold their heads and stare at their answer documents during testing, that’s hardly a problem.