Attention deficit. Do smaller chunks of learning work more effectively, or are we simply training people to pay attention for less time?

I’ve been secretly worried that i’ve trained myself to be distracted. I can recognise the symptoms. When i try to write a document, i check my email. Several times. Then Facebook. If i’m sat reading, sometimes i feel the urge to be writing, or to check my emails (again). Or Facebook (yet again). I’m reasonably certain that i’ve cleverly learnt how to be a less attentive learner.

None of this was intentional. Indeed, i think i’ve undone all the good work of decades of formal study. When i was a postgraduate student (within the days of computing, but before the days of the internet. Yes, seriously, and i’m not even all that old) i spent day after day just reading. For weeks or months on end. Indeed, for nearly seven years i worked part time and read and wrote for the rest of it. With not one minute spent on Facebook or emails. I became some sort of incredibly efficient reading machine, churning through book after book after book. I even created a complex database of all the quotes i dug out (a database, i’m happy to say, i’ve never consulted even once – maybe Facebook isn’t the only way to waste time?).

Still, the fact remains that, at one time, i learnt to spend ages doing a single thing, but now, i seem to spend shorter and shorter chunks of time on single things. Honestly, when i read an article online, one of the first things i do is see how long it is (and whether i have to click ‘next’ to go between pages – i’m a scrolling fan, ‘next’ is a sure turnoff). I’ve been trained to like the length of article that the BBC site puts up.

There is a great deal of enthusiasm today for creating smaller chunks of learning. Learning bites, bytes, bursts, chunks, bits and fragments. Instantly consumable, ‘just in time’, reference, ‘mobile’, refreshers and refreshing. But where is the space left for the depth?

Lightweight learning is a great thing. This week alone i’ve learnt any number of things in superficial depth from Wikipedia, from some learning Apps and online, but i’ve not studied anything in depth.

Except about weeds. I’ve been reading a book on weeds. It’s called ‘Weeds’. By Richard Mabey. It’s about how ‘vagabond plants gatecrashed civilisation’ and it’s safe to say that, whilst it is many things, concise is not one of them. Mabey is famed as someone who likes the depth. Indeed, he nearly drove himself to distraction with Flora Britannica, a book that deserves the title ‘definitive’. (

I was speaking to a friend last night who saw the book. “what’s it about?” she asked. “um… weeds”. “Seriously, but what’s the story?”. It was a short conversation about a long book.

Maybe (Mabey) we need both short and long learning experiences. Too much of the long and we descend into torpor and stupor. Immersed in depth, but lacking in energy. Too much of the short and we become Bart Simpson like attentionally deficit creatures, flitting from one resource to another, but never really mastering anything.

It’s significant in terms of the design of longer learning programmes. You will never become a great leader from looking at learning bursts alone. Depth and breadth of learning is what we need to aspire to, incorporating it in the design of our solutions, giving people the space to expand into, allowing them to work fast, ‘just in time’ and in bursts, but also creating space to reflect, absorb and luxuriate in the learning.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in 'Just in time' learning, Education, Learning Journey, Reflection, Time and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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