Are we Paying Attention?

If attention is the key ingredient to learning, we need to teach the fundamentals of attention

Recently I read with great interest ‘catastrophic doomsday’ reports concerning the ‘obliteration’ of concentration, attention and focus due to our fascination, perhaps even addiction, to smart-phone technology; some reports went even further, suggesting how the average Western fifteen year old now has an attention span somewhere between an amoeba and a goldfish. The reports though were not just confined to the Western teenager, indeed certain nations in Asia (notably Taiwan, South Korea and Japan) have named internet addiction as the number one health crisis amongst youth; it has long been known that the social and emotional circuitry of a child’s brain is developed through contact and conversation, so it would seem inevitable that more time spent away from people, and more time spent focused upon a digitalised screen, would lead to social and emotional deficits.
None of this of course is particularly new. In 1977, the Nobel-winning economist, Herbert Simon, when writing about the coming information rich world, warned that what information consumes is “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” We are living in an information age like no other, and therefore we need, as educators, to focus more on attention than ever before – and, here is my argument, attention is grabbed by engagement.

And here lies the crux – engagement, attention, can in fact be amplified by the use of digital resources; the most precious resource in any digital system in fact is not the interface, nor the processor, or the memory, not even the network. The most precious resource is human attention and every variety of attention has its uses. The very fact that almost half our thoughts are daydreams suggests the ‘wandering mind’ must have some advantages, but it is also true we learn best with focused attention. As we focus on what new things we are learning, the brain begins to map that information on to what we already know, making new neural connections. When our mind wanders, our brains activate a host of circuits, ‘chatter’ if you like, that actually have nothing to do with what we are trying to learn and, lacking focus, we are therefore unable to map the new information and it is forever lost to memory. Quite simply, it remains unlearnt because we lacked attention.

Attention, or focus, therefore is the key to success in the learning process and perhaps we are on the very threshold of being able to harness digital resources to improve student engagement, and therefore attention. Rather than digital resources bringing the obliteration of attention, they are perhaps somewhat of a saviour.

Thinking back to your own education, were you ever taught how to focus? Were you ever taught about how the brain functions in terms of mapping information and committing it to memory? For most, we never were. Some individuals were more gifted than others, and the ability to sit and focus was considered a characteristic rather than a science, as a trait rather than as something which could be taught and therefore improved. The digital world is not going away and if we believe the constant tidal wave of texts and email, calls and notifications, is leading to the obliteration of attention – and if we also believe attention is the key ingredient to successful learning – then we need to address it. We need to teach the fundamentals of attention.

In Years 7 and 8, over the next term or so, all students will be involved in a program entitled ‘The Science of Learning’; as well as investigating how to be a better learner, a central pillar of the program examines how our brains learn. Focus and attention, in a digital world, is explored in all its wonderful colours, ensuring our students are fully harnessing the benefits of technology in their learning. Paying attention to attention – now there is an idea.

Mr Adrian Puckering

Director of Curriculum Innovation and Development

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