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Attention: the "Holy Grail" of Learning (Part 3 of 14)

Satellite Dish
What is attention, and how does it work?  Consider the satellite dish:

The signal from every satellite TV channel beams through the air at every moment.  And satellite dishes receive every frequency beamed from space, but they amplify only the channel or station we set them to.  Millions of hours of airtime beam through space--but the great wealth of it is tuned out.  We only ever see or hear what the satellite dish is tuned to, what it attends to.

So it is with our brains and attention.  We are bombarded by sensory information--lights, sounds, sights,  smells, balance, and more--but we direct our attention only to certain things, only to certain stimuli: the text we see in front of us, the music we are listening to.  Our attention works in this way like a filter.  We focus on what we like, and filter out what we do not seek.  Like a satellite dish, the brain receives a flood of signal, but it amplifies only what we are compelled by, and it suppresses or ignores everything else. 

In this way, attention is where learning begins.  Without our students’ attention, everything else is lost.  And so our goals as educators begin with capturing, directing, or inviting student attention in the most productive ways.  
Johnson, Strayer, and Robbins on Memory
Yet, of the four cognitive processes that make up learning, attention proves to be the most complex and wide-ranging, the toughest to pin down.  We talk about it in a number of different ways.  Here is just a sampling:

Scientists, researchers, and non-cognitive skills
The last few years have seen a movement towards the discussion of “non-cognitive skills.”  But what these really get at are ways into attention:
    • Motivation is really about the voluntary direction of attention.  When we are motivated to do something, we pursue it more often; we give it more attention.  
    • Similarly, Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets--whether we believe our intelligence is fixed, or whether we think intelligence is malleable--her research really explores whether we sustain our attention in the face of adversity.  If we have a growth mindset, we believe that our work improves with effort, and so we direct our attention to it repeatedly.
    • Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower explores the factors that influence whether we sustain attention.  Our attention and resolve are limited, but we can exercise and adjust the factors that marshall our limited attention.
    • And out of Stanford, Clifford Nass’ research on multitasking (and our inability to do it) further informs how we channel, and lose, attention.
    In all these--motivation, mindsets, willpower, and multi-tasking--we find we are really talking about attention, and that exploring these “non-cognitive skills” is really another way to understand how and why people direct their attention--or not.

    Writers, Advertisers, too...
    But we can understand attention in other ways, too.  In advertising, business, and elsewhere, writers exploring other issues are really exploring attention:
    • Chip and Dan Heath’s book “Made to Stick” captures much of what we know about attention, and how to capture it from the outside.  It explores the “stickiness” of objects, and why they keep popping into mind.
    • “Microstyle,” by advertising man Christopher Johnson, explores how to capture attention through language.  And specifically by using small amounts of it very carefully with deliberate intention.
    • And Samuel Johnson again, reminds us of the power of pleasure:
    What is read with delight is commonly retained, because pleasure always secures attention; but the books which are consulted by occasional necessity, and perused with impatience, seldom leave any traces on the mind.” (Idler #74, September 15, 1759)
    Each of these many sources addresses factors that invite, compel, or otherwise influence attention, and the great variety of sources reflect the great variety of ways that attention works.  

    But when it comes to it, what are the mechanics of attention?  How does attention work?

    Mechanics of Attention
    Research from the last fifteen years suggests that we have two main kinds of attention: goal-directed attention and stimulus-driven attention.  
    Two types of attention: goal-directed and stimulus-driven
    The first, goal-directed attention, describes something like focus, the practice of directing ourselves towards activities or thoughts.  It describes attention through motivation, willpower, curiosity, and many other self-driven forces.  It is sustained by our intent, and it is influenced by many, many factors that threaten to interrupt or supersede it.

    The second, stimulus-driven attention, describes our awareness of and response to the sensory stimuli that surround us.   It describes our unconscious monitoring of our sensory landscape and the promotion of certain things to our attention, overriding our goal-oriented attention, if necessary--like a circuit breaker interrupting current when something big comes along!  We know, for example, that stimulus-driven attention is captured by high-contrast changes in our environment (stillness to movement, loud to soft, dark to bright, etc.) and by high-intensity stimulation (extreme sounds, sights, etc.).

    And so we can fill in some detail in our satellite dish metaphor: imagine those long-distance microphones we sometimes see at sporting events.  Like our attention, we focus them on specific targets to capture sounds from a particular direction.  We choose to point them at something of interest.  This is like goal-directed attention.  But, if a loud enough noise comes from another direction, if a strong enough signal comes from elsewhere, it will override what we’re focusing on, and pull us towards the new sound.  This is like stimulus-driven attention.  We’re driven by the intensity of the new sound to pay to attention to it.

    Both of these kinds of attention operate at the same time, and our ability to regulate them--to moderate between the two, to stay focused on our goal-directed attention and to limit the influence of our stimulus-driven attention--this determines when learning begins.  

    And this is what the writers, researchers and scientists above are all getting at.  Willpower is about sustaining goal-oriented attention in the face of other stimuli.  Motivation, too, is about making goal-oriented attention as strong as possible.  The language work by Christopher Johnson in Microstyle aims to craft words and phrases that effectively capture stimulus-driven attention.  So to with Made to Stick.

    And so how do we use this as teachers?

    Attention and Teaching style
    In the classroom, we have a range of teaching styles, and it’s important to preserve that.  It’s important first and foremost because kids have amazing radars for when we’re being inauthentic as teachers.  And that’s when they stop paying attention.  And so how do we engage, invite, and compel student attention?  
    William James on Attention and Education
    Our approaches are wide-ranging:
    • Recall those teachers you had, or knew about, whose seriousness, whose gravitas, you couldn’t refuse.  You simply didn’t want to let them down because they took you so seriously, more seriously than you took yourself.  They channeled your attention through their expectation of rigor.
    • And recall as well the fun and charismatic teacher whose classroom environment was loose and easy, but who directed that energetic feel towards material that she was passionate about and intrigued by.  She captured your attention because class was fun.
    • But so did the barbed drill sergeant of a teacher who inspired fear in you.  She, too, channeled attention, if through a perceived threat.  Nonetheless, you may still recall those lines you had to memorize in that class.
    • And sometimes it was simply the way the teacher decorated the classroom.  The space you were in - engaged or directed your attention because of the books on the bookshelves, or the simplicity or the space, or the table that everyone sat around.
    Some of these might have summoned goal-directed attention in you.  Others might have created environments where you were stimulus-driven, driven by external pressures.  

    And the lesson here is that the science, economy, and understanding of attention collectively suggest that attention is accessed by two routes, and that those routes are influenced by many factors.  The more we know about these factors, the more we can engage the routes to our students’ hearts, the more we can tweak what we do as teachers and curriculum designers to better keep our students engaged.

    And how we engage our students must differ for each of us, for our different teaching styles, which derive from our different personalities, appropriately attract us to different classroom approaches.  
    What kind of teacher are you?
    Some of us are drill sergeants, some charismatic hosts, some serious ushers of knowledge--and some of us are none of these, but other characters instead.  And some of these personalities work in some classrooms and not others, for our students, too, need different kinds of teaching.

    We cannot write an algorithm for attention, because teaching is a social act.  What matters is that it behooves us all to understand how attention works, so that we might best inform the moves we make in the classroom with an understanding of how those moves capture, direct, or simply invite our students’ attention--for that is the gateway to their learning.

    But opening this gateway is only the first step.  Encoding the information that passes through attention is what makes education meaningful.  This we explore in the next post.

    This is the third of fourteen posts in a series about the role of cognitive science in education.

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