Attention: Attention issues

Howard Rheingold has been talking about attention literacy for a while now. Whether you think it’s a literacy or a skill, it’s continuing to be something that needs to be embedded into learning.

Currently our best strategies for dealing with attention literacy is telling students to close their laptops, turn off their cellphones, or simply reminded folks to “pay attention”. As Dr. Phi would ask, “how’s that workin’ for ya?”

Part of our struggles around this topic has to do with our perceptions of attention. Ze Frank asks us to not be to quick to judge what we might consider to be a bad trend in society.

Everyone is struggling with what it means to be attentive.

Howard, along with people like Linda Stone, Sherry Turkle and others are looking quite deeply at this and exploring what it means for us a society. I’ll leave their research for you to explore but I think my attention as an educator needs to revolve around three things: content, delivery and space.

This one might be the easiest to consider. We’ve known for a while that much of our curriculum is not only outdated but what we ask students to do is often irrelevant to their lives. I’ve been pleased to see more and more curriculum shift from knowledge to skills and application. That’s certainly a positive step but moreover curricula needs an injection of personalization. No longer can we expect students to care about content simply because we tell them to. They are highly aware of the ubiquitous nature of information and realize it is easily accessible outside the classroom. The longer we avoid this truth, the more school becomes a game. Allowing students to take ownership and have choice has to lead to greater attention. Simple questions asking students what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, is a big step towards improved attention.

Be it the flipped classroom, Inquiry learning or simply using more visuals in your classroom, there are many ways to provide learning in rich ways. We know that many of our traditional instructional strategies need a makeover. Worksheets, lectures, copying notes may never have been great strategies but they dominated educational pedagogy for years and sadly, I think are still hanging around. It’s not simple to do all the time but certainly it acknowledges the idea that we learn by doing and being active. One of the many affordances of emerging and even older technologies is that we don’t rely on a single teacher to deliver content. Making this shift alone should improve attention.

This might be the most overlooked, yet important aspect of dealing with attention. When I think of space, I’m thinking physical, virtual and mental. A month ago I participated in an event called Unplugd. Basically 36 of the most wired, most passionate Canadian educators spent 3 days unplugging and attending to some pretty intense conversations. The space played a major role in the success and focus of the event. A quiet, serene space but more than anything it broke away from our routines. It was also a neutral space. None of us owned it and we all were able to explore it together. So in thinking about learning spaces, we need to consider breaking routines and finding and creating environments where serenity exists, playfulness thrives and conversations are natural. Sometimes that does mean unplugging, but it’s purposeful unplugging and it’s not all the time. Even virtually, thinking about where we hang out and what we’re doing there matters. Twitter and Facebook can be used in a variety of ways. If you find yourself using it to socialize, that’s great and important. Have fun, ask silly questions, respond to others but don’t confuse it with deep learning. Be conscious of where you are online and what you’re doing. Teach your students to do the same. Dealing with the mental space would certainly be the most challenging. Getting the physical and virtual space right helps but your mind can still wander. Metacognition, thinking about thinking, is a start. Have your students and yourself reflect often about their attention. Knowing when you need to stay on one activity or take a break is a simple example but training your mind to be attentive is plain hard work.

Each of these three areas need to be examined more deeply. For me, articulating and being mindful of what I attend to and what I don’t, is a big step. Considering how to help our students do the same is going to take more work than simply asking them to shut off their devices. They are going to be dealing with this for the rest of their lives. Shouldn't we as caring adults be there to help them? In turn, we’ll likely be helping ourselves as well.