Retaining focus

In a tech-centric world, deep focus skills are being eroded. But an AI expert
is bringing fresh perspective to those at Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide.


By Lauren Brooks, Principal, Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide  

According to Johann Hari’s bestselling book, Stolen Focus. Why Can’t You Pay Attention, published by Bloomsbury, it is not entirely our fault we can’t focus. We now live in an environment where sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us. The British-Swiss author’s research suggests that switching between tasks when working (checking emails, texts, calls, changing to the many open tabs on our screen) not only lowers the quality of output (by up to 30%), but also lowers IQ. 

This digital form of daily multitasking is proving to be ineffective and incurs a great time cost in cognitive terms. His research suggests: 

  • The average student switches tasks once every 65 seconds; 
  • The median amount of time students focus on any one thing is 19 seconds; 
  • An average office-based working adult focuses on one task for three minutes.  

The systemic problems from technology causing our global attention crisis are also contributing to the current mental health crisis. What is both fascinating and frightening is that the efforts to support children’s mental health are limited, when they continue to “hold the weapon (their phone) in the palm of their hand”. 

But is it entirely their fault, if it is a system-wide problem of tech companies designing addictive programs, creating environments that steal our attention? Perhaps this systemwide problem requires a systemwide solution. In this context, Saint Ignatius’ College is currently reviewing our mobile phone policy and look forward to sharing an update soon. 

Further to this is the relatively recent juggernaut of Artificial Intelligence. This has exploded into the educational stratosphere and it has been intriguing to see how schools, systems and sectors have responded to this technology. Some of our staff recently engaged with AI expert, Dr Nick Jackson, founder of Now Future Learning, who has been guiding us to see artificial intelligence as our critical friend.  

He has explored the benefits for our students and staff, using this technology with curiosity, with an open mind and using it for thinking, inspiration, planning, ideation and clarification. Dr Jackson believes that AI can support critical thinking in our students when they are given the tools and strategies around its use. Our teachers actively guide our students about responsible and safe use of technology, including artificial intelligence literacy, through safe use, ethics and prompting.  

In the meantime, it’s contextual to point out that in January 2022, The Washington Post carried this review of Johann Hari’s ‘Stolen Focus’, with the headline: “Our attention spans are suffering. Maybe there’s a way to get them back.” The reviewer, US-based health editor and freelance writer Angela Haupt, listed four takeaways from the book: 

  • We’re switching tasks at unprecedented speed. 
  • One of the best ways out of distraction is finding your way into flow. 
  • Technology is deliberately designed to distract. 
  • There’s no easy solution. 

At the end of the article, the reviewer pointed out: “There are interventions we’re all capable of doing that can help reclaim some of our attention. One of Hari’s sources suggested a handful: a) Implement a ‘10-minute rule,’ and whenever you feel the urge to check your phone, wait 10 minutes first; b) Change the notification settings on your phone so your apps aren’t bugging you every few minutes; c) Or maybe delete them altogether.  

We have a commitment to balance the needs of our young people. We aim to concurrently optimise their focus and attention to learning while at school, as well as responsibly exploring technological tools and advancement under guidance and supervision.  

This is an updated version of Lauren Brooks’ article in a recent edition of ‘The Ignatian’, the newsletter of Saint Ignatius’ College, Adelaide. 

Banner artwork by Just_Super, Canva