Attention Trumps Technology: AI and technology are all the rage, but it is attention and concentration that educators urgently need to care about

Adam Seldon
5 min readMay 19, 2024
Photo by Ales Nesetril on Unsplash

The other day, a student who struggles to get down to independent work was once more distracted by her phone, despite there being a ban on these in detention. I told her to put the phone away, plucked a revision guide from the oft forgotten study room shelf, and told to her to read that. She was rapt. An accessible resource, devoid of tempting distractions, that would help her revise for her exams. She surreptitiously placed the book in her bag before she left.

As in much of the world today, there is excitement in education about the potential of technology to be harnessed to drive progress. AI that promises personalised learning solutions. Large Language Models like ChatGPT that provide efficient responses to any research questions. Up Learn, a website that is “powered by AI”, promises guaranteed As and A*s to A-Level students. Some even talk of a “fourth education revolution”. But is it a panacea, a false dawn?

There is scepticism about the promises of AI. ChatGPT gets much fanfare, but how far is it actually justified? It often makes up incorrect information. It invented 30% of the references when asked to generate scientific abstracts. Cal Newport, the technology expert, highlights that AI cannot replicate the ability to forward plan, a core human function. AI also cannot replicate an essential art form of a teacher: well-crafted explanations. However, even if the technology is fine-tuned, this does not change the fundamental problem that the cost might outweigh the benefits.

Technological distraction, especially on smartphones, is increasingly shown to be corrosive for the mental health and learning of young people. The American psychologist Susan Linn highlights how “The tech companies are in a war for…our children’s attention”. They are winning the war. Different studies vary on how much time young people are spending online. But what is clear is that it is excessive. One of the more conservative estimates by Ofcom says teenagers spend 4 and a half hours online. This is a potential stumbling block to learning. A key idea in Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, is that unless you learn to concentrate as a teenager, you may not ever.

The negative impact of excessive online use on young people is clear to see. Haidt establishes that the rapid increase in smartphone use is not just a correlate but a cause of decline in mental health. A recent paper by the Resolution Foundation came to similar conclusions.

Schools are currently issuing 180 SEN (Special Educational Needs) diagnosis a day. This encompasses a range of needs, but some relate to corroded attention, which excessive mobile phone use might have contributed to. The SEN label is designed to accommodate needs, rather than resolve underlying issues.

One thing all schools could do, which the Department for Education in February of this year recommended, was some form of phone banning. But this is not enough given the urgency of the issue. It might not be as glamorous or in vogue as lining the pockets of technology companies, but schools, educators, along with parents, need to cultivate in young people healthier habits on technology, and provide an environment that allows this to happen.

The outcomes of our lives, the paths they take, are at least in part determined by what we do moment to moment, day to day. The author Paulo Coelho optimistically asserts that “each day, in itself, brings with it an eternity”. But what if our day to day is driven by addictive technologies that give a dopamine hit but stop us achieving our goals?

Addictive technology is one of the culprits behind the decline in reading among young people. The National Literacy Trust suggest only 28% of students (aged 5 to 18) read for pleasure. A 2021 international PISA survey of students says that 49% of students agree that “I read only if I have to”, up 13% from 2000. Reading can be a challenge and does require concentration. But it is essential for learning. Children from high income households are exposed to thousands of more words than poorer ones, which is one factor among many for why children from wealthier backgrounds have better educational outcomes. According to the OECD, reading is the single biggest determinant of “success” in education. Reading helps with wellbeing too, for how it creates new neural pathways, lowers stress levels and increases oxytocin levels.

Learning we value not just for the acquisition of knowledge but, as the philosopher Sasha Mudd points out, the process itself. The process is character developing, from nurturing curiosity to resilience: there are moments of frustration and uncertainty with learning. We need to retain concentration when things are hard, keep up the attention even when there are distractions. The route matters as much as the outcome. We are better off persevering in pursuit of learning, rather than taking the AI short cut, which might get us there quicker, but leaves both the individual and society worse off. As Charles Darwin argued, “hardly any faculty is more important for intellectual progress of man than attention”.

This is not just a matter of performance either. We want to be cultivating in students the pro-social value of listening to other people and paying them attention. Whether that is from a learning perspective — listening to each other is a great way to learn — but also from a moral perspective. In an age where phones are frequently on the tables of restaurants or family suppers, we want students to know the value of giving someone your attention, because it is a way of showing you care and validating them. As Simone Weil argued, “attention is…the purest form of generosity”. Listening is a building block of relationships.

The dialogue is currently stilted too far to unadorned excitement at the potential of online technologies. Yet, for the sake of students and wider society, generating environments that support student attention, and cultivating habits of concentration, are ancient but still vital components of the intellectual and mental development of young people.

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