There are some great conversations going on right now about Marc Prensky's article, Engage Me or Enrage Me. One is at Dennis Fermoyle's blog; the other is at Chris Lehmann's blog. I love these types of conversations because they force us to examine what we really believe about motivation, learning, and good instruction.
I just started reading Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson. One of the first points the author makes is that most good video games are HARD. They're frustrating. They cause players to think and stew about them even when they're not playing the game. It's not that the gaming activity is easy. On the contrary, like a good hobby, it's that the activity is challenging AND considered worth the work by the player.
We shouldn't be making our schools fun at the expense of solid intellectual engagement. But making students' classroom time more fun (or engaging, or whatever you want to call it) will help them learn more. Teachers who say it's not their job to keep their kids' attention during class time should, in my opinion, immediately be placed into a remediation program to improve their instruction. It's not the kids' fault if their teachers are boring or haven't put together lessons that interest students (e.g., I just did a study of some high schools in which 68% of over 1,000 students said 'Most of our work is busy work'). Or, as Seth Godin puts it...
Too often we educators (both K-12 and higher ed) say that 'We've put together a good lesson, now it's the students' responsibility to meet us halfway.' But Godin's quote puts that belief to the test because it doesn't hold up very well in the real world. In our own lives we don't waste our valuable and limited attention span on stuff that doesn't interest or engage us. To say that kids should because it's in their best interests is disingenuous and morally dishonest. We have to make the case. Otherwise we deserve the consequences. Alfie Kohn has a wonderful quote in The Schools Our Children Deserve: "Might we have spent a good chunk of our childhoods doing stuff that was exactly as pointless as we suspected at the time? (p. 1)" [For those of you who might bring up the fact that work isn't always interesting but we have to slog through anyway, I'll point out that 1) no one made you work in that job and/or for that employer, 2) job mobility is way up (people are trading autonomy for job security), and 3) we make students go to school through mandatory attendance laws - they have no choice but to be there.]
Right now I think students go home and are immersed in learning environments (i.e., video games) where the end product is considered to be worth the hard work. Then they go to school and too often don't feel that way about what they do in their school environment, either because of lack of engagement or lack of perceived relevance. That is the challenge, and that is how I read Prensky.
Side note: Chris used the word gumption in his blog post. The third definition for gumption at Dictionary.com is 'common sense.' Using that definition, I'd argue that students that are tuning out of irrelevant or uninteresting lessons are showing a lot of gumption. Unless the teacher or school organization had successfully made the case for why it was worth my time to slog through anyway, I know that's what I'd do and I strongly suspect that most others would too.