They say you’ll never get the right answers if you’re asking the wrong question. It’s exactly the case with education today. I’ve seen many adults stand in front of me —teachers, administrators, public service employees and even College Board officials — all with the same concern: the decline of education in the United States and the subsequent inability of American students to stand out in a competitive global marketplace.

The reason we aren’t able to work toward a viable solution is because we aren’t asking the right questions. The debate currently focuses on why kids don’t get good grades and test scores. People ask: Why aren’t students paying attention in school, why aren’t they making learning a priority or why aren’t they absorbing the information presented to them?

We never ask, however, why aren’t students interested in school? We never ask, what else is going on to detract from focus on their education?

We never ask why staring at a computer screen reading 540 of your Facebook friends’ status updates is more interesting than learning how the world around you functions. Why watching YouTube clips of people embarrassing themselves is more appealing than learning skills to help sustain yourself for the rest of your life.

With the amount of things vying for a student‘s attention these days — Facebook, YouTube, Iwastesomuchtime.com and the list goes on — education must be not only interesting, but captivating enough to hold a person’s attention.

When you start asking these questions, the answer becomes clearer. All these distractions are designed to be entertaining. Millions of dollars are poured into creating a product people want to consume, a product that fascinates people, a product that keeps them coming back again and again.

These are products that are designed to solicit and earn people’s attention, and they keep adapting accordingly. If a game or movie is boring, it fails. Simple — people just don’t buy it and move on to the next thing. This, in turn, forces companies to keep innovating, to keep investing in the new.

Yet, in education — something so important to an individual’s future — why aren’t classes held to the same expectations? At a university where students are paying hundreds of dollars for each hour they sit in class, why aren’t lecturers expected to make the content interesting at the least, if not engaging. Professors must now compete with technology for their students’ attention.

Unless the professor is presenting information in a way that makes students want to listen instead of text their friends, play Temple Run on their smartphone or Facebook stalk the girl they met last night, people aren’t going to pay attention.

It isn’t enough for teachers to walk into a room, read off of a PowerPoint and expect to have the full attention of their audience. Yes, it’s admirable to be an expert in a particular subject or to have a Ph.D. from a top-ranking university, but until a professor or teacher is able to take their information and present it in a way that holds people’s attention and conveys why it’s is useful to them, they won’t be effective teachers.

And students will continue to struggle.

There was a time when even if something wasn’t captivating, people sat through it because they had nothing else to do. But now entertainment goes with people wherever they are. There are so many apps, games and devices competing for a person’s ever-shortening attention span.

For classes to truly get a person’s attention they must recognize that they’re competitors. They have to elicit curiosity and passion, and captivate students so they want to come to class and delve into the subject matter. That’s the only way to get students to the point of truly absorbing what they learn and being able to do something with their education.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @HarshaNahata.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.