June 10th, 2015

Can We Teach Students How to Pay Attention?

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students paying attention

I need to start out by saying that the article I’m writing about here isn’t for everyone. It’s not like any pedagogical piece I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a few. My colleague Linda Shadiow put me onto it, and although the article may not have universal appeal, the topic it addresses concerns faculty pretty much everywhere. How do we get students to pay attention? Their attention spans are short and move quickly between unrelated topics. Can we teach them how to pay attention? Is there value in trying to do so?

Author Anne McCray Sullivan, who was teaching in Florida when the article was published, writes, “My autobiography is largely an autobiography of attention—learning it, teaching it, discovering its role in research. It’s a story that began when I was very young.” (p. 212) Sullivan’s mother was a marine biologist who regularly took her daughter on outings to collect and study specimens. Sullivan did not follow in her mother’s footsteps. She’s a writer and a poet. The article includes nine of her poems, most of them describing her mother at work. The poems and article explore what Sullivan learned about attention, mostly from her mother. Teaching Professor Blog

We pay attention at different levels—from sort of focusing on something to giving it full, undivided attention, an intensely focused concentration that obliterates all but the relevant details. I am a knitter, and I always try to have on my needles at least one complicated knitting project. Right now that happens to be a Cookie A sock pattern, done in the round on four very small needles. I tackle these projects first thing in the morning, when the coffee and I are fresh. I count stitches, inspect what I’ve done, move the markers, find mistakes, fix them, finish a round, and start the next one. It requires serious mental effort—the kind I hope will prevent Alzheimer’s. Suddenly my husband shows up. It’s time for breakfast, and my coffee is cold.

“My mother, the scientist, taught me to see. She taught me attention to the complexities of surface detail and also attention to what lies beneath those surfaces.” (p. 221) Sullivan writes that at the time she didn’t think she was paying much attention and she’s quite sure her mother thought the same. Her mother did try to teach her, sharing Latin names and scientific categories. “I remember very little of what she taught me in this direct way. What I do remember is so deeply embedded in experience that it has entered my ways of thinking and perceiving, my very way of being, without the intermediary of language—at any rate, without language that addressed this learning directly.” (p. 222)

One of the central questions explored in the piece is how teachers might help students discover the power that derives from attention that is all-consuming. We regularly teach material that students don’t see as interesting or relevant. Typically teachers try to solve the attention problem by tricking students, entertaining them, using bribes or coercion. Less often do we purposefully show what can be learned and experienced when serious attention is paid to something, really to anything. At this point, our content simply becomes the example.

We want students to share interest in what captivates our attention. We want them to fall in love with bugs, rocks, literary theories, religious paintings, differential equations, Ohm’s law, or countless other phenomena. And regularly we are disappointed by students’ complete lack of interest in, if not disdain for, these subjects that hold endless fascination for us. Maybe we need to be less idealistic and more realistic. The article made me wonder whether teaching students to pay attention might not be the more enduring lesson they could take from our courses. If our demonstration of how to attend to detail and how to study, analyze, question, pursue evidence, and untangle complexities might not be the more powerful gift, the one that will enable them to pursue to the depths whatever fascinates them.

I’ll let Sullivan have the last word. “She [her mother] taught me the rhythms of tide and regeneration, and the syllables of the natural world rubbing against each other. In doing so, she made me a poet.” (p. 221)

Reference: Sullivan, A. M. (2000). Notes from a marine biologist’s daughter: On the art and science of attention. Harvard Educational Review, 70 (2), 211-227.


  • Howard A. Doughty

    I first heard the hideous slogan "a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage," in my first month as a full-time professor back in August, 1969. For close to half a century I have endured the babble of miscreants and hucksters as they have (mostly successfully) imposed a corporate "business model" on postsecondary education. They have reorganized academic labor turning Associate Professors into the intellectual equivalent of Walmart Associates, torn away academic freedom, degraded academic work, systematized the surveillance of teachers and students alike, commodified curriculum, commercialized research, famously "dumbed-down" course content and infantilized teaching and learning. Fortunately, the majority of educational managers suffer from AADD (Administrative Attention Deficit Disorder), so they no longer get started doing something pernicious when they are attracted to the next New Big Thing and leave their last destructive project half-completed. With Sisyphusian strength and what's left of our integrity, we gather up the pieces and await the next innovative turmoil.

    I first heard the hideous slogan "a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage," in my first month as a full-time professor back in August, 1969. For close to half a century I have endured the babble of miscreants and hucksters as they have (mostly successfully) imposed a corporate "business model" on postsecondary education. They have reorganized academic labor turning Associate Professors into the intellectual equivalent of Walmart Associates, torn away academic freedom, degraded academic work, systematized the surveillance of teachers and students alike, commodified curriculum, commercialized research, famously "dumbed-down" course content and infantilized teaching and learning. Fortunately, the majority of educational managers suffer from AADD (Administrative Attention Deficit Disorder), so they no longer get started doing something pernicious when they are attracted to the next New Big Thing and leave their last destructive project half-completed. With Sisyphusian strength and what's left of our integrity, we gather up the pieces and await the next innovative turmoil.

    In the process, we do our best to teach and teaching has become not merely a matter of encouraging curiosity, imposing rigor and discipline and rewarding effort and achievement, it has not become a matter of demonstrating sustained resistance against the corporate philosophy, policies and processes that are seeking to transform higher education.

    The admonition to "show our students how to study, analyze, question, pursue evidence, and untangle complexities" is nothing new. Teaching has always been a performance art: teaching is testament, didactics are display. We do our best work when we "model" (hideous word) the best qualities of education and show how exciting and adventuresome "thinking" can be … never suggesting that it's merely "fun" for it is also very hard but also rewarding work.

    What I hope is that this age-old practice (apparently newly rediscovered by professional pedagogues) will encourage professors not just to share their captivation with their disciplines, but also to clarify the institutional and ideological context in which some of us carry on a rearguard action against neoliberal instrumentalism and empty sloganeering. Education is a public process that we have allowed to be privatized at our peril.

    • Ron

      I couldn't have said it any better. Thanks for your post.

  • Mary Lou Lamont

    The profession of teaching has always walked alongside challenges of environment; be it political, religious, social or otherwise. Teaching excellence is found in each teacher's ability to engage alongside students in examining and exploring and playing with concepts and content. You have all likely had different styles of educators over your life time (guide and sage alike). Regardless of the teacher's style, it really is the teacher's interest in both the students and the topic plus his/her expectations for and confidence in student's to work the content that seem to impact best on student motivation. Guide and sage both can be successful in teaching.

    Students have long been trained to pay attention in short bits of time, through television as well as in schooling. Every 10 minutes and then a 5 minute break with TV. We know that kids watch tv alot. In classrooms, we expect the level of activity to change every 10 minutes; for example, starting with a mental set, then after that heading into lecture, followed shortly after a change in direction by inserting such thing as "think, pair, share" to a posed question. Every 10 minutes approximately, there is a changed direction. Changing it up is considered important because listening, watching and paying attention is a honed skill. Both classroom practice and TV use a 10 minute time frame. Thus perhaps the ability to attend is happening, but what is needed is to stretch abilities to attend for longer segments in time.

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  • Steve Markoff

    I have no problems with this. I am a Socratic teacher. I cold call on people at random. Students can and do get called on at any time. The price of them not paying attention is too great. They miss material and are embarrassed in front of the class if they are not paying total attention to the discussion. This works. Also, I make sure that they get the "payoff" in exchange for this level of attention. There is no "busy work" or time spent on "B.S. topics", and my reputation precedes me – hence, they know going into the class that there is no napping, talking or the like permitted. Additionally, I do NOT allow any cellphones, laptops, iPads or anything in the room to distract them further.

    • Bruce Burch

      Anybody remember Professor Kingsfield in the movie PAPER CHASE?

  • Nina Hutchinson

    I completely agree with the statement "If our demonstration of how to attend to detail and how to study, analyze, question, pursue evidence, and untangle complexities might not be the more powerful gift, the one that will enable them to pursue to the depths whatever fascinates them."

    Teaching students how to attend to detail is a transferable skill. It transfers to your entire life. It becomes "who you are" not just "what you do". I can no longer count the number of times I've been in a non-professional situation where I have pointed out some detail and its significance–sometimes a physical item, other times a concept or idea–and have had those around me say "I've looked at this a thousand times and never saw that. How did you see it right away?" My answer is always the same, "I'm been a nurse for 30 years. We notice details for a living. In nursing, noticing a detail can literally mean the difference in life or death."
    Attention to the world around me is part of who I am. I notice how full the gallon of milk is every time I see it. (Do we need to buy more?). That drives my poor hubby crazy as he only notices when it is completely empty and he has no milk for his cereal.
    I have a teacher to thank for teaching me this. But for Dr. Arnold, attending to detail–to the greater world around us–was not just an educational skill. It's a life skill. And isn't making our students flourish in all parts of their lives, the more powerful skill we can teach our students?

  • Peter Adeyemi

    Passion
    Passion is from the Latin verb patere meaning to suffer; as a psychological term it is applied to a very strong feeling about a thing. As an educational construct, in this study, it refers to an intense emotion compelling enthusiasm and motivation for excellent instructional task performance of teachers throughout career span. Harvey (2002) defined passion as an educational variable which is “a compelling inner desire to enhance the lives of children/students through one’s own contribution as an educational leader” (p.29). The researcher was of the opinion that passion is critical in order for teachers to experience vitality in their instructional task performance. Weimer (2010) discussed passion as a correlate of instructional vitality in terms of the interest of the teachers to improve, develop, change and grow on the job. In her words: “The words are inseparably linked. Improvement and development happen only when teachers change. Teachers change when they stop doing something. They change when they do something new or do something done currently in a different way.”The passion to change and improve instructional task performance helps teachers to refresh, renew and reenergize their instructional vitality, this invariably help them when they are getting tired and keeps burnout syndrome away during their career years.
    Kouzes & Posner (2002) supported the importance of passion for a successful execution of any professional task especially teaching. Teachers who have passion for the profession have a vision for excellence; they long to make a difference in the lives of their students. Lyman (2000) connected the idea of passion with the concept of caring. Students learn more from teachers who care about them and support them. On her part Gonzalez (2007) linked passion with commitment, a sense of mission and interest to serve others. Toler (2005) identified an important link between passion and teaching profession according to him: “Teaching is not like working on a factory line, where nuts and bolts are fused and electrical panels are placed in refrigerators. Teaching is personal. For a few moments in time; people’s lives interact in a redeeming or rugged way” (p.123). Teaching brings the practitioners in close proximity to the students and their parents in a relationship that goes beyond casual interaction. The motivation and energy that teachers who possess instructional vitality put into their instructional task performance are driven by passion.

  • Peter Adeyemi

    maintain instructional vitality across their career span.
    Vigour
    Weimer (2010) described teaching as “a roller coaster of highs and lows, slow climbs, corners careened around on two wheels, and trips down at breakneck speeds. It’s exhilarating, exhausting, frightening and fun” (p.xii). Consequently, teachers with instructional vitality are those who have enough determination to grow, change and adapt on the job without losing their freshness, interest and professional competence. Such teachers possess professional vigour and so are able to keep their instructional task fresh and invigorated across their career span. Harvey (2010) contended that vigour is the energy that takes the form of the consistent mental, physical and emotional exertion demonstrated by teachers in the course of their instructional task performance. He added a sense of purpose and positive attitude to instructional task as correlates of vigour.
    In their study on teachers’ vitality (Intrator & Kunzman, 2006) observed that teachers with instructional vitality are engrossed in their roles as teachers; they channeled their physical, cognitive and emotional energy into the labour of teaching. They have a sense of vigour marked by enthusiasms for their work; they demonstrate a high sense of dedication and a feeling that the work is meaningful and important. They are “fully there” in the classroom-a psychological and experiential presence that allows an individual to infuse his or her role and task performance with a sense of personhood.
    Furthermore, teachers with vigour “remain tuned in” the classroom. To be tuned in implies an acute sensitivity to the needs of students and context. It is not merely being open and receptive to pain or anguish, as in discerning that students need support to overcome
    emotional wound, but manifests itself in other ways as well. “A tuned-in teacher has the capacity to read the often well masked situational and expressive cues of student emotion and possesses the ability to communicate about these issues in constructive ways” (Weimer, 2010).
    Lastly, teachers’ vigour as a correlate of instructional vitality involves being purposeful, ability to take initiatives in improving current conditions or responding to adversity by imagining what could be. Such teachers see themselves as efficacious agents capable of challenging the status quo rather than passively adapting to ordinary contexts and approaches. Teachers with high instructional vitality possess a mature sense of purpose that accounts for the uncertainty of outcome and the routine problems that occur in the classroom setting. The orientation of teachers with vigour towards the everyday difficulties in teaching profession is marked by the strong capacity to solve problems, remain focused on the future and view problems as opportunity to learn (Intrator & Kunzman, 2006). Several researchers have emphasised the importance of vigour as an educational construct in sustaining instructional competence of teachers (Putnam & Borko, 2000; Jennie, Liston & Borko, 2009).

  • Peter Adeyemi

    Commanding Teaching Presence
    A commanding teaching presence is a necessary correlate of instructional vitality. The teacher must stand out boldly in the classroom and must not look timid. He/she must be firm in controlling classroom interactions, alert to different forms of activities happening in the class, smart enough to pick out students who are distracted and distracting other students from concentrating on the learning task. Toler (2005) remarked that:
    Learning is rare when there is an absence of respect. A teacher who tolerates tardiness, disruptive behavior, foul language, or unruliness harms the students exhibiting these behaviours as well as the entire class. Respect for authority is what levels the field in a classroom. It allows everyone to participate equally (p.105).
    Afariogun (2014) corroborated the point, he argued for the position that: “Discipline is the basis upon which good learning environment rests. When discipline does not exist in a school, the teachers will teach nothing and the students will learn nothing of significance” (p.189). Unfortunately, secondary school students in Southwestern Nigeria observed by research finding of Adeniyi (2012) lacked discipline and the students found it difficult to submit themselves to constituted authorities. However, this problem is not peculiar to Nigeria alone; it is a global
    phenomenon as reported by Martin, Limfort & Stephenson (1999) who claimed that many teachers confessed to their inability to deal with students’ misbehaviour in their classrooms. By implication commanding teaching presence of the teachers and their emotional maturity are questionable.
    In the present age driven by technology many students now concentrate on their mobile phones to send and receive messages, hook on facebook, twitter and other social media while instruction is going in the classroom. Commanding teaching presence will likely discourage such behaviours and probably control it to a great extent. Weimer (2010) however warned that “a commanding teaching presence” does not mean that teachers should not come across as persons students cannot connect with as people. This has been confirmed by Vijay (2010) who asserted that: “The teacher should be neither lofty nor authoritarian, but his enthusiasm in communicating a subject should command a natural respect” (p.12). As a matter of fact teachers’ connectedness to the students is a major requirement of instructional vitality as observed by (Garuba, 2003; Nwalado, 2007; Weimer, 2010; Okobia, 2011 & Cavner, 2014).
    Adu (2004) considered commanding teaching presence a necessary professional quality for all teachers. In his opinion teachers must not just possess commanding teaching presence in the classroom, but must equally command respect among their peers and in the community. He added a caveat that such can only be acquired through thorough preparation in professional training. Teachers that command respect he noted communicate knowledge clearly and are models of competencies; they are approachable, open and imaginative. They readily exhibit the ability to organise, emphasise important concepts and pose useful questions that elicit creative and imaginative answers from their students in the course of their instructional task performance.

  • Peter Adeyemi

    Commanding Teaching Presence
    Yes we can teach students to pay attention in class, as a teacher I do that quite often effortlessly.

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