August 4th, 2009

Interesting Interview about Attention

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Last week I heard an interesting interview with Winifred Gallagher, author of a new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. She’s a science writer and the book looks at recent brain research on attention and focus. She was so articulate, knowledgeable and able to explicate complicated research. I’ve put her book near the top of my “must read” list.

She talked quite a bit about how attention is really a matter of focusing on something. That focus enhances whatever it is one is attending to and it suppresses information from a lot of things other that could be attended to. To make the point that people look at the same stimuli and attend to very different parts of it, she talked about a study where a husband and wife were asked to list all the activities of a week at its end. The correlation between their two lists, as in what appeared on both lists, was no better than chance even though they’d spent that week together sharing all sorts of activities. I couldn’t help but smile, living with someone who attends to the world very much differently than I do.

But what the interview really got me thinking about was how different the same classroom experience can look to those experiencing it. Students don’t focus on the same parts of an activity and that changes how they experience it. Yet, how quickly and easily we homogenize student experience. “Oh, they all really got into that group project” when in fact they probably all got into it at different levels and in different ways. Even more frightening is how often teachers assume what they experienced in the classroom was shared by students, or assume they can tell how students experienced something without any feedback from students.

What happens in a classroom looks very different when you sit in a desk and when you stand in front of those desks. It wouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves of that every day before departing for class.