07 January 2011

The myth of the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Generation

I've been on YouTube a bit today doing a bit of research into future articles, and on one video I watched, Steve Kaufmann commented on the idea that has been doing the rounds that attention spans are shorter than ever.  I grew up in the "MTV Generation", allegedly, and the "SMS and Twitter Generation" is apparently even worse than mine.  Let's combine the two into the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Generation -- the ADHG.

This is belief pervades much of modern thinking.  For at least a dozen years, TV companies have been trying behind the scenes to devise ways of writing bite-sized TV programs for the ADHG.  The conversation has switched from ideas of "webisodes" (the BBC experimented with this for two Flash-animated Doctor Who stories at the turn of the century, for example) to talk of TV programs for the mobile phone.

But this is nonsense.  Cinemas may no longer show 4 hour epics, but aside from that, run lengths in most media have stayed stable.

A great example is the Star Trek series, simply because it has been running so long.

Looking at the details on Wikipedia and IMDB, you can see that in 1966 the original stories with Captain Kirk ran at 50 minutes each.  The Next Generation, 1987-1994, was 45 minutes long, but this was mostly down to the increase in advert breaks, and the effective time taken to watch an episode would have remained the same.  Deep Space Nine from 1993-1999 was exactly the same, as was Voyager (1995-2001) and finally Enterprise (2001-2005) was a mere minute shorter, which again we can put down to increasing advertising time.  So over half a century, no more than 6 minutes of storytelling time has been lost, and the viewers are sat in front of the goggle-box for the same amount of time as before.

Now, what came out of the "webisode" model?  Aside from the Doctor Who serieses already mentioned, the big one would be Sanctuary done with full CG sets.  There were initially 8 episodes at 15-20 minutes each... but eventually they switched to a 42 minute television format, because that was more popular.  So where's the evidence for reduced attention spans?

OK, yes, there's now 8 minutes less story time than a 1966 major drama, but that 8 minutes is 8 minutes more advertising -- that's 18 minutes of advertising to 42 minutes of viewing.  Almost a third of your time in front of the TV is not following the story.  To me that suggests a longer attention span, not a shorter one, but hey....

Anyway, this is a language blog, right? and Kaufmann was talking about how this mythological short attention span leads to daft ideas like 140-character Twitter messages for language learning.

Indeed, there is a massive amount of material out there for the ADHG.  Radio Lingua's Coffee Break series, for example, consists of "podcast" courses of 80 lessons of 15-20 minutes.  Of course, there's a lot of wasted time due to the faux-radio culture of podcasts. There's an announcement, followed by a theme song followed by a "welcome to the show", a short jingle, and finally the lesson starts after a full minute and a half (10% into the recording).  And of course each episode ends with a goodbye, a jingle, and then an advert for the site (just in case you got it somewhere else).  If quarter of an hour is too much for you, the same site offers a One Minute series.  The invasiveness of the jingles, welcome, goodbye and site advert at the end is even worse, as each one-minute lesson is wrapped up in an MP3 of 3 minutes or thereabouts.

With so little time, something has to give.  The One Minute series suffers from an acute lack of revision.  As far as I'm concerned, if there's no revision, there's no teaching. What you're left with is a phrasebook, not a course.  Coffee Break does retread some ground, but they do fall into the old trap of telling you to relisten to old lessons instead of programming in sufficient revision in future lessons.  (Older LP, cassette or CD-based courses had to balance the cost of the additional recording media with the value of programmed revision, but a podcast class has no such excuse!)

And it's not just audio media that suffer for this perceived lack of attentiveness -- books are changed by the same philosophy.  Everything's broken down and segmented into semi-self-contained units and sub-units, which means not exploiting connections.  I was working with high-school kids using a book that introduced any new structure in the positive and worked on that, then in the negative and worked on that, then in the interrogative...  But you know what?  The rules for forming negatives and interrogatives in English are almost entirely regular, so these shouldn't need to be taught individually for every new strucure.  But we have to keep things short -- it's the ADHG, don't you know.

But here comes the non-sequitur.  At the same time as lamenting the lack of attention spans in "kids today", the course books exacerbate the problem.  In the process of trying to make the material relevant to kids, they ignore the appropriacy of the format.  Kids love magazines, right?  So let's make our books more like magazines!  Long before I took my sabbatical as a teacher, I'd read about this.  Magazines are designed as much not to be read as to be read.  You flick backwards and forwards, you glance at pictures, you read little lists of facts that distract you from the main article -- everything you don't want in a classroom.

Many school books actually undermine the learners' attention spans.  So maybe the ADHG isn't a myth, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Fasulye said...

Of course kids need schoolbooks and not only magazines! But for language practise on let's say at least B1, B2 - level reading magazines in your target languages is excellent reading practise. I prefer those of popular science and I like to browse through it and read one article here and one article there. It's less exhausting than reading whole books and in Germany you can buy such magazines in different languages in the kiosks of the bigger train stations.

Nìall Beag said...

The point is that they're not giving kids magazines -- they're giving them books that look like magazines.
However, unlike magazines, these schoolbooks have to be read in a set order.

Absolutely ridiculous.

Thrissel said...

Cinemas may not show 4-hour epics but 3-hour epics like the Lord of the Rings trilogy are still doing pretty well, so I guess it's a myth all right...

Fasulye said...

Nìall, thank you for explaining. Yes, I misunderstood your article. I fully agree with you that schoolbooks have a different intention than magazines and that they shouldn't look like them.

Matthew Postman said...

The problem has nothing to do with the run lengths of these programs and films, what matters is the time between the cuts. The average shot duration has dropped significantly over the past few decades and these rapid changes in concepts within the films can be detrimental to a developing mind. It does not at all surprise me to learn of the drastic increase in ADHD diagnoses over the same time period.