Some of the complaints that the older generation has about the younger generation have been voiced almost as far back as there has been a way of recording those complaints, and they’re all familiar enough. They young don’t respect their elders; they don’t listen to their elders; they have no respect for tradition; they think they deserve something without really working for it, etc., etc. And, frankly, there’s some validity to those complaints today, and there always has been. That’s the nature of youth, to be headstrong, self-centered, and impatient with anything that hampers what they want.
But being adjacent, shall we say, to a university, I’m hearing what seems to be a variation on an old complaint, except it’s really not a variation, but a very troubling concern. What I’m hearing from a significant number of professors is that a growing percentage of their students can’t listen. They’re totally unable to maintain any focus on anything, often even visual presentations, for more than a few seconds – even when they seem to be trying. When they’re asked what they heard or saw, especially what they heard, they can’t recall anything in detail. We’re not talking about lack of intelligence – they do well on written multiple-guess tests – but an apparent inability to recall and process auditory input.
Unless there’s something of extraordinary interest, their attention span darts from one thing to another in a few seconds. Whether this is the result of a media driven culture, earlier teaching methods pandering to learning in sound-bites, a lack of discipline in enforcing focus, or some combination of these or other factors, I can’t say. But, whatever the reason, far too many students cannot focus on learning, especially auditory learning.
Unfortunately, the response of higher education has been to attempt to make learning “more interesting” or “more inspiring” or, the latest fad, “more experiential.” Learning through experience is an excellent means for attaining certain skills, provided the student has the background knowledge. But when a student hasn’t obtained that background knowledge, experiential learning is just meaningless and a waste of time and resources. And, generally speaking, learning has to begin with at least some listening.
Furthermore, in the “real world,” employers and bosses don’t provide “experiential learning.” They give instructions, usually vocally, and someone who can’t listen and assimilate knowledge from listening is going to have problems, possibly very large ones.
Despite all the academic rhetoric about students being unable to learn from lectures, lectures worked, if not perfectly, for most of human history. That suggests that much of the problem isn’t with the method, but with the listener. And it’s not just with professors. They can’t listen to each other, either. That’s likely why they’re always exchanging text messages. If this keeps up, I shudder to think what will happen if there’s a massive power loss, because they apparently can’t communicate except through electronic screens.