Schools have long been plagued by education myths, often taken from education science or brain research. Education science is often done very unscientifically, and even the best done brain research can have errors or may have its results quoted out of context or misunderstood in its applicability. For instance, people used to think that we use only 10% of our brains. This false belief held for a long time even though it was well known that unused nerve cells usually die. If 90% of our brains were inactive, autopsy of adult brains would reveal large-scale degeneration. You can learn more about the “ten percent of brain myth” here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_percent_of_brain_myth
Another such urban myth, one with harms school children everywhere, is that of the short attention span. A lot of meddlers in education pontificate on that one and arrange bell schedules and classroom procedures along their promulgated time tables. How intricate the research and criticism of research in this area really is, and how widely such estimates vary, you can quickly glean here:
One time, when I wanted to show an engaging video from James Burke’s “Connections” series to a class of severely under-engaged children in what was supposed to be a science class, I was told by my supervisor that the video was too long (~49 minutes) since “a 13 year old has about a 15 minute attention span”. When I googled the claim, I came across a wide range of wild claims about people’s attention span. One that came closest to the one I had just heard said that people have an attention span matching their years in age, up to a 20 minutes maximum in adulthood. I don’t get where people come off making, spreading, and believing such ludicrous claims. Look around you. Have you ever seen both children and adults with their eyes glued unblinkingly to a movie lasting two or three ours? If you live on planet Earth, you must have. According to the proponents of this wild claim, civilization was built in 20 minute intervals, and our African ancestors stopped every 20 minutes running from a wild fire or lion to reconsider the gravity of their situation. Clearly, no matter what specialized experiments in brain research may be telling us, it is obvious that (A) we can re-focus when our attention wavers, and (B) our attention depends a great deal on how interested we are in something. Boring topics picked by curriculum designers and imposed on us in classes against our will, often don’t qualify as an interesting something; even if you disregard the obvious fact that when someone forces you to do something, it’s only natural to resist.
Needless to say, when I did show the video, the kids were watching it avidly, becoming disengaged (to varying degrees) only during the intervals in which we stopped to discuss what we had seen. Not that all students immediately snored off as soon as we began to talk, but the more often we interrupted, or the longer the interruptions, the higher the drop-out rate. Discussion was essential, and I had planned it all along. Only, quite so many interruptions as demanded by my supervisor might not have been needed. My point is that conventional schools, in overreacting to rumors such as those about juvenile attention span, often become enablers or even the outright cause of the disability with which they label our children. It’s when you challenge students to do more than they have done before (watch and listen longer, discuss longer and more deeply), that you allow them to grow. When children and adolescents are left alone, they tend to challenge themselves to ever better performance and understanding. The last thing we should do in schools is to make them conform to our preconceived images of their disability and arrest their development in doing so.
It is such thinking about enabling growth which underlies the self-agency given to our kids in the Sudbury model and JSS.