I admit I believed very much in that youths today have a much shorter attention span than us „older people“, i.e., people over thirty, and that they needed to be entertained more and more. Media repeat this over and over, and I spotted this lack of attention in all of my classes. But, the last two weeks showed to me that this might be also some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: If one expects some behaviour, one will get it.
DFKI’s knowledge management department keeps good relations to several secondary schools, one of it Hugo-Ball-Gymnasium (HBG) in Pirmasens. A few years ago I was involved in re-establishing the contact with HBG. We did a small project there on eLearning. Since then DFKI researchers regularly give talks on Artificial Intelligence and related topics.
Like last year, Benjamin Adrian organised a two weeks internship with the computer science and math teachers of HBG. Five 11th grade students participated in the programme, which consisted of a presentation each day accompanied by exercises. Two DFKI management interns joined the talks. The presentations ranged from such topics as „Semantic Desktop“, „Web 2.0 and the ALOE platform“, „Intelligent Text Processing“ to „Computer-generated explanations“. I contributed an introductory talk on AI and second talk „Case-Based Reasoning and Explanations“.
During my first talk I already noticed the rapt attention of the students. I have to admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable at first as I was not used to that level of attention. These young people did not only listen closely to what I had to say, they participated and answered questions that typically became rhetorical questions in university lectures. They even asked questions on their own.
I was asked to limit my talks to about an hour, but I enjoyed the presentations so much that I extended the first a bit. When it came to the second talk I extended it to nearly two hours. I hurled a lot of stuff at them, but they seemed eager to learn and understand. I am sure a lot went right over their heads, but they did not seem to tire (unlike me).
Of course, one could say the students chose this internship and, thus, were very much interested in what we presented. On the other hand, they could have chosen to lounge about during the two weeks. But no, each of them stayed tuned until the very end of my presentations (I heard the same from my colleagues, mind you). I do not think of myself as being a very good or pedagogically gifted teacher who could motivate even the dead. So it must be their fault. They have just a normal attention span, if they are interested in a topic. Just like us „older people“.
I try to be a little bit less prejudiced in this regard when the next lecture at university starts. Instead of looking out for signs of lacking attention I will look out more for signs of attention and interest.