Being a teacher in the world of screens

A young man went to a doctor’s appointment:
—”Doctor, I don’t know what’s happening to me: I find it very difficult to lift my head, my neck hurts. I find it difficult to talk to other people because I can’t pay attention to them. Doctor, what have I got?”
— “A smartphone”


This is and isn’t a joke, it’s more of a paradox, because it’s both laughable and serious and our era is pervaded by this paradox!

The cell phone is the great symbol of one of the greatest social changes in human history: the superimposition of the digital world on the world of things.

Since the dawn of the species, human life has always been structured around “things” (bodies, food, cities, houses etc. etc.) that have consistency and form and give us a sense of the stability of the environment. In recent decades, this “order of things” has been superimposed on the digital order where things are mixed with and often supplanted by information which, because it has no consistency or form, is “not things”. Information, these non-things, are now just as, if not more, decisive for life than things.

The biggest hallmark of today’s digital world are social networks which, as well as conveying an almost infinite amount of information, are fragile structures that are continually made and unmade, tending to instabilize the social environment.

The term “google”, created in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin to name the most famous contemporary information search engine, derives from another term – googol – invented in 1938 by a nine-year-old child (Milton Sirotta) to define the largest number he believed existed. Sirotta called googol the number 1 followed by 100 zeros, a number that today is curiously called ten duotrigintillions. This overwhelming amount of information circulates on social networks, mainly via cell phones.

Another characteristic that underpins social networks: they are additive and not narrative; the vast majority of the information that circulates on them are discontinuous units that have a short margin of timeliness. Furthermore, because they are not narrative, the information circulating on social networks does not usually create “contextualized stories”. (Han B.C. 2022)

This sum of excessive information, structural fragility and narrative incapacity tends to unsettle our cognitive system. This unease is particularly evident among younger people who were born into the world of social networks.


Social networks and damage to attention

What does this cognitive disquiet consist of and what are its implications for contemporary pedagogical processes?

To make this unease clearer, we need to reflect briefly on one of the most important cognitive processes, Human Perception, which is the result of the combined and coordinated action of sensations, attention and memory.

This combined and coordinated action of sensations, attention and memory becomes clear if we think about a banal situation in our daily lives: what happens cognitively when we put our hand inside a bag looking for a key?

Through selective attention, when we touch the “sought-after object” we make a “selective” distinction between sensations: in the midst of many sensations, we distinguish and pay attention to a few specific sensations (shape, consistency etc.).

Subsequently, we unconsciously compare these sensations with our collection of memories (memory of a key). If there is structural coupling, i.e. if the sensations have a “match” in memory, the experience becomes meaningful, and we feel able to name the object: key! Naming, in this context, means more than giving the name “key”, it means placing the object in the conceptual, comprehensible territory that makes sense at that moment, so that we feel that we have “found the key”.

Whenever we name something, we have a pleasant feeling of stabilization, of appropriation (“that’s it!”), of what has been perceived.

In situations where we can’t name it, there is no stable perception; the experience may not make sense and we experience an unpleasant feeling of instability, a tension of incompleteness. All learning begins in a tension of incompleteness, classically called “accommodation”, and concludes with the “assimilation” of knowledge, as Piaget tells us.

After this brief reflection, we return to the contemporary digital world with its excess of information, which inevitably leads to the metaphor of the “tsunami of information” that drowns our attention. Drowned in information and with nowhere to stabilize our attention, we become cognitively restless.

One of the main characteristics of this restlessness is the replacement of sustained attention by kinetic attention (a term coined by psychologist Gloria Mark, in 2023).

With sustained attention, we are able to maintain our focus of attention for prolonged periods (sometimes for hours!) and often feel pleasurably immersed in what we are doing. Sustained attention is present when reading a novel, watching a show and in similar situations.

It’s important to note that even with active sustained attention, some degree of oscillation of focus – “inattention” – is natural and desirable. Some suggest that creativity is stimulated by these normal oscillations in the focus of attention.

On the other hand, if we are predominantly using kinetic attention, we are unable to fix our focus for any length of time, usually measurable in seconds, and our attention shifts uninterruptedly from one focus to another, generating fatigue and anxiety. When we’re immersed in social media, going from computer to cell phone, from WhatsApp to Instagram, from Instagram to YouTube, and so on, spending a short time on each thing, we predominantly use kinetic attention, which, more than anything else, is a state of prolonged inattention that hinders stable thinking and social relationships and has potential emotional implications.

When we are immersed in kinetic attention, we can compare our focus of attention to an object floating in a river of rough waters, whose structural instability greatly impairs our ability to complete tasks. The more our attention is interrupted by external stimuli, the greater the chance that it will also be distracted by internal stimuli and the more mental confusion will set in.

Important contemporary neuroscientific studies have suggested that the excessive and fragmented consumption of information has physiological effects on the brain, with alterations in the process of self-control (linked to the Dorsal Cingulate Cortex), in the process of decision-making and memory formation (Fronto Orbital Cortex) and in the system that controls the release of dopamine (Ventral Tegmental Area) with consequent alterations in mood. (Su, C. 2021).

On the other hand – and this is very important – many studies suggest that moderate use of screens and social networks is not a problem and can be integrated into life in a very useful way, especially when accompanied by genuine pleasure. The interposition of periods of mental rest and pleasurable activities plays a fundamental role in people’s physiological and existential balance. (Morris, R. 2023).


Being a teacher in the world of social media and kinetic attention – remembering what stabilizes attention

A teacher’s task is multifaceted and difficult to define. Generally speaking, it is the teacher’s job to guide, orientate and help the student develop skills, knowledge and competences. But above all, a teacher’s main task must be to help the student develop autonomy as a person. The basis for all of this is the teacher/student relationship – the greater the degree of mutual student/teacher trust, the more effective the interaction and results will be.

Here are a few reflections/provocations to remind you of how a teacher can attract and quieten attention.


What motivates the student most is the teacher’s motivation.

Internal (or intrinsic) motivation is the set of emotions and thoughts that make us want or enjoy doing something. One person cannot directly act on another person’s internal motivation, but if we are motivated, we encourage others to be motivated too. Hence the idea that what motivates the student most is the teacher’s motivation. Teaching will be more effective if it happens in a motivating environment.


Respecting the other as a “legitimate other”

As Humberto Maturana (2002) said, to consider the other as legitimate is to consolidate respect for the other without wanting the other to be like me; it is to accept differences as legitimate and give practical meaning to the word “respect”. Treating others with respect, recognizing the authenticity of their individuality, is a demonstration of affection. Affection and respect are engines of human development; intersubjective exchanges mediated by affection calm, stimulate and create bonds that organize attention and cognition. A student who is welcomed and respected is a student who is stimulated and more likely to learn. What is more affective is more effective!


What is easier to learn is what helps us to live and what gives us pleasure.

Trying to understand the student’s current demands makes all the difference.


Educate or instruct.

There are two fundamental pedagogical approaches: educating and instructing. To educate (e + ducere) means to lead, to stimulate growth; to instruct (in + struere) means to put together, to put one thing on top of another.

Educating and instructing are equally important and complementary actions, although they have significant differences. To instruct, the teacher’s focus should be more on the information; to educate, the focus should be more on the learning process.

Remember that the word Pedagogue (paidós = child + agein = conductor) originally means “the one who conducts the child”.


Surprise or amaze!

Surprising with what you don’t expect attracts attention and stimulates engagement. Surprise and amazement at the unexpected is perhaps one of the most effective attractors of attention and a great motivator for learning. Focusing attention and establishing sustained attention is an important factor in developing self-control and forming memories. It should be part of the preparation of a lesson to create strategies that stimulate the student’s imagination – the unexpected breaks with the commonplace.


“There are schools that are cages and there are schools that are wings… Flight is born inside birds. Flight cannot be taught, it can only be encouraged” (Rubem Alves, 2014).

The actions of teachers and schools can limit students or give them the resources, encouragement and courage to live and grow. We make the choice.

Teaching is always a challenge. Effective teaching involves integrating motivation, attention, respect and enjoyment. Today’s technology is an extraordinary ally for teachers, but it takes its toll with the deterioration of attention. It’s up to us teachers to be more and more attention-grabbers.


João Gabriel Marques Fonseca, musician and doctor.
Professor at Escola de Música  e da Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais



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