Attention!

St. John Historic Classroom 2

An attentive bunch at St. John Lutheran

In discussing whether or not technology is harming students’ capacity for attention”(as those of us embarking upon EDCI 335 this week have been asked to do), each of these terms inhabits a range of contextual definitions that make first attempting to determine a common understanding necessary if any meaningful discourse is to emerge.  Many of the assumptions underpinning aspects of this discussion, however, serve mostly to obscure the more important, emancipatory aims of education in service of outdated, dominating educational practices.

It is in the interrogation and illumination of these assumptions wherein I find more fertile grounds of discussion.

Such as, first of all, determining which aspects of “technology” might we look to brand with this “harmful” brush?

  • Smart Phones? Wifi? Social Media?
  • Television? Video Games? Mix Tapes?
  • Pencils? The Steam Engine? The Wheel?

Belonging to a vastly different historical eras, each of these technologies was as harmful to their contemporary societies as they gave expression to them. Which interests and values do we see represented by those who deem the digital technologies harmful?

And what might we learn from looking at various criticisms lobbied against prior technological advancements and paradigm shifts?

One might easily imagine a case for banning pencils in a bygone era:

Kids will just use them to play games. Hangman, Tic-Tac-Toe, word searches, crosswords, and now the latest craze: Sudoko. How can any student be expected to keep their mind on lessons when there are so many tempting distractions just a pen stroke away?

Our relationships with new technologies are always complicated, and we are seldom able to determine the lasting effects they will exert on society and culture until they are supplanted by even newer devices, tools and relationships.

Indeed, people may even have lamented the advent of the electric toaster:

When the electric toaster was invented, there were, no doubt, books that said that the toaster would open up horizons for breakfast undreamed of in the days of burning bread over an open flame; books that told you that the toaster would bring an end to the days of creative breakfast, since our children, growing up with uniformly sliced bread, made to fit a single opening, would never know what a loaf of their own was like; and books that told you that sometimes the toaster would make breakfast better and sometimes it would make breakfast worse, and that the cost for finding this out would be the price of the book you’d just bought.

As Marshall McLuhan told us, “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” Try as we might, we don’t have all that much say in the matter, making the question  Is “technology” in and of itself “harmful” to (young) people? similarly useful as considering aging’s influence on mortality.

In either case, there is a limited range of responses to such questions. And in regarding technological advances – just as we might contemplate our own death – we can only live with a greater awareness of what such knowledge means to us, and attempt to live what we consider to be the good life within such bounds.

Similarly, “attention” occupies a much broader spectrum of meaning than “harmful” or beneficial.” Tom Chatfield notes that:

Attention comes in many forms: love, recognition, heeding, obedience, thoughtfulness, caring, praising, watching over, attending to one’s desires, aiding, advising, critical appraisal, assistance in developing new skills, et cetera.

And in limiting our view of attention so narrowly, we create a perception of it as a scarce resource, prompting Chatfield to ask,

What are we actually talking about when we base both business and mental models on a ‘resource’ that, to all intents and purposes, is fabricated from scratch every time a new way of measuring it comes along?

Such a conception of attention transforms teaching into a marketing or business problem, which it is not. Despite what the premier might say in the Throne Speech, the job of teaching is to help foster individual agency in the name of creating a better society and a more authentic vision of liberty.

Chatfield points out something I have been quick to highlight in more than one of our EDCI 335 topics so far this semester, that education and attention have always been oriented toward this ideal:

As the manual on classical rhetoric Rhetorica ad Herennium put it 2,100 years ago: ‘We wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive (docilem, benivolum, attentum).’ To be civilised was to speak persuasively about the things that mattered: law and custom, loyalty and justice.

But the modern conception of efficiency, accountability and attention provides the essence of a self-defeating conception of learning. When British Columbia’s Minister of Education Peter Fassbender talks about “improving educational outcomes,” he would do well to remember that:

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.’ There are few better summaries of the central flaw in attention economics.

Despite including that summary in his own article, Tom Chatfield goes a step further, lampooning such notions of attention as:

a mix of convenient propaganda and comforting self-deception that hails new kinds of agency, without pausing to acknowledge the speciousness of much of what’s on offer.

Ira Socol has written a devastating critique of another word that finds itself nestled into the “attention economics” narrative: Grit. What “grit proponents” are after, Ira writes, is “kids working hard at what they [the teachers] themselves value, which is, apparently, “white middle class conformity.”

In a word, both grit and attention seek compliance and subservience to a particular set of values.

Ira highlights a quote from school leader Dave Meister, who defines grit as “simply a term by which the privileged try distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy.”

These narratives – of grit, attention, and a host of other educationally entrepreneurial marketing campaigns – not only seek to dominate and eliminate difference in our classrooms, they also undermine the very qualities at the heart of creativity and innovation.

Ira wonders:

What “grit” did Bill Gates demonstrate when he quit Harvard because his dad hooked him up with an amazing contact at IBM and his buddy found an operating system Gates could buy for almost nothing and sell for a fortune? What “grit” did George W. Bush show when he walked away from a National Guard commitment because, suddenly, he was more interested in a political campaign?

…we know, thank God, that Samuel Clemens stuck with that riverboat career and Albert Einstein fully committed himself to his Patent Office clerkship.

Indeed, while it might be the ire of stand-and-deliver lecturers and Best Buy shift managers, a lack of ability to “pay attention” may actually be exactly what is required of modern schooling, and which our fertile media technology landscape affords in spades. Jonah Lehrer reminds us that:

In recent years […] scientists have begun to outline the surprising benefits of not paying attention. Sometimes, too much focus can backfire; all that caffeine gets in the way. For instance, researchers have found a surprising link between daydreaming and creativitypeople who daydream more are also better at generating new ideas. Other studies have found that employees are more productive when they’re allowed to engage in “Internet leisure browsing” and that people unable to concentrate due to severe brain damage actually score above average on various problem-solving tasks.

In considering the integration of technology in our modern lives and student learning, we would do well to ask:

Where is the space, here, for the idea of attention as a mutual construction more akin to empathy than budgetary expenditure — or for those unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all?

In cultivating “attentiveness [as] a fungible assest,” Chatfield says:

We’re not so much conjuring currency out of thin air as chronically undervaluing our time.

This is what we’re doing to our students when we look to market our lessons to them, or slyly con them into paying attention: we are undervaluing their time, we are assaulting them with our need to be “understood.”

We are denying them any agency over their own use of time or learning.

And we are denying the transformative qualities of digital technology and the social web.

Howard Rheingold grounds “attention” within the context of five social media literacies that I find helpful to the discussion:

    • Attention
    • Participation
    • Collaboration
    • Networked Publics
    • Critical Consumption

Although I consider attention to be fundamental to all the other literacies, the one that links together all the others […] none of these literacies live in isolation.1 They are interconnected. You need to learn how to exercise mindful deployment of your attention online if you are going to become a critical consumer of digital media; productive use of Twitter or YouTube requires knowledge of who your public is, how your participation meets their needs (and what you get in return), and how memes flow through networked publics. Utlimately the most important fluency is not in mastering a particular literacy but in being able to put all five of these literacies together into a way of being in digital culture.

Not a new thing in an old way. Not an old way with a new thing.

Howard wraps it up better than I’m able to:

This is not just another set of skills to be added to the curriculum. Assuming a world in which the welfare of the young people and the economic health of a society and the political health of a democracy are the true goals of education, I believe modern societies need to assess and evaluate what works and what doesn’t in terms of engaging students in learning.

If we want to do this, if we want to discover how we can engage students as well as ourselves in the 21st century, we must move beyond skills and technologies. We must explore also the interconnected social media literacies of attention, participation, cooperation, network awareness, and critical consumption.

2 Comments:

  1. Hello Bryan – your quote from McLuhan sums up the debate perfectly “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” The debate on how technology is affecting students has lead to camps declaring that technology is leading to an increase in ADHD, those who say technology should be banned since schools are the only place students can get a break from constant novelty, to those who say technology is the only way to keep students attention in the classroom as it’s their ‘native’ way of interacting. Really like your quote from Tom Chatfeild on the types of attention. Some of your debate – specifically the notion that ‘grit’ as being tied with “white middle class conformity” is pure rhetoric. Doesn’t creativity and innovation take attention and grit? Doesn’t practicing hours on end to perfect a new song take grit? Or trying and failing many times for innovation to truly manifest take grit? I won’t touch Meisters definition as he is clearly working from the notion at we define what servers (Just as the term ‘professor’ is oppressive and serves to differentiate the privileged from the unworthy ;-). There is a big difference between blowing people away with rhetoric than offering educated insight on what is, or ought to me (I’d like to see more the later!) Always love the breath of your blog posts!

  2. Hi Nick – thanks for the comment and push back. I think what you might call rhetoric here is more an attempt to tie the use of terms like attention and grit to the problem of schools’ ‘hidden curriculum’ (which admittedly can appear conspiratorial at times), that bears a connection to the larger cultural narratives of scarcity in the neoliberal era. Ira’s larger argument about grit is illuminated in its opposite, “slack,” which I think is an interesting direction to pursue in thinking about design (if only to bring onto equal footing with competencies like grit and attention, no strangers either in relying on rhetoric to make their points). Instead of characterizing the competency to accentuate a particular view of success – that “grit” and stickwithitness is cultivated through sheer force of will – the creation of slack frames the common characteristics of successful people in another manner:

    Of Bill Gates and Mark Twain, he says,

    “What the people I mention above have is “slack” – the moments when necessity is not the sole driver. “The cost [of “scarcity” – the primary element in “grit theory”] is an undue focus on the necessity at hand, which leads to a lack of curiosity about wider issues, and an inability to imagine longer-term consequences. The effect of this scarcity-generated “loss of bandwidth” has catastrophic results…” The Guardian writes in a book review on the topic. The “struggle” that Tough, Duckworth, Davis, et al want for kids is the creation of “scarcity” among children already scarred by “scarcity.”

    In considering an education of abundance we might achieve more of those “unregistered moments in which we attend to ourselves, to the space around us, or to nothing at all,” which I think is worth pursuing.

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