August 4th, 2009

Interesting Interview about Attention


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.

  • A clinical psychologist, I'm convinced that we can only underestimate the impact that attention has on a child's experience. It's what a child pays attention to – not everything that's actually going on – that shapes the child's experience. Of course, the same is true for teachers!

    I've devoted much of my career to developing and perfecting a tool that places people of all ages at the controls of their own attention. The idea is that people can deliberately shape or reshape their experience by choosing where to focus their attention. Without help, however, they will not keep their attention focused long enough to achieve results.

    The tool is called a MotivAider ( It's a remarkably simple electronic device that automatically and privately keeps its user's attention focused on any chosen personal objective. Although it's being used primarily to change troublesome habits, I believe the MotivAider's
    greatest potential lies in its ability to shape experience.
    That ability can be used not only to solve problems, but to enhance learning in potentially exciting ways.

    Imagine, for example, a child who is learning about art being silently, gently and repeatedly reminded as she goes about her day to notice how shadows are naturally cast. Or imagine a teacher using the tool to tune in for a day to subtle ways that children help each other.

    I encourage teachers who are interested in exploring the MotivAider's potential as an experience-shaping tool to contact me ( I'm eager to support this type of exploration with complimentary MotivAiders.

  • John Thompson

    Note on "how different the same classroom experience can look to those experiencing it" and "homogenizing student experience."

    William Perry has a wonderful article, "Different Worlds in the Same Classroom: Students' Evolution in Their Vision of Knowledge and Their Expectations of Teachers." On Teaching and Learning, Volume 1 (1985). His observations are based on his theory of student epistemological development in making sense of knowing, of how they make meaning. He puts these students side by side in the same classroom.

    I have found Perry's observations quite helpful in my making sense of students' questions — allowing me to hear their different takes on the same presentations/discussions.

    John Thompson, Saskatoon