Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Paying Attention

From: yastal.ru
"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."  Herbert Simon, psychologist.

My son always said he paid attention in school.  It wasn't always to what the teacher was doing or saying, and it wasn't always to the work he had in front of him, but he was paying attention... attention to whatever it was that crossed his mind, or sparked some creative energy.

Personally, I think 'paying attention' is a misnomer.  When paying attention, be it in school, work, or driving, we need to make sure we 'focus' on what we should be focusing on (teacher, books, screen, or the road around us).  And, while this distinction may be simply splitting hairs, I think it is an important distinction.

When something is interesting, stimulating, or important, it is much easier to pay attention.  But there are so many times that things are not stimulating or there are other thoughts, images, or issues vying for the same attention, or we simply lack the energy to maintain attention. 

Here are some things we can do for ourselves and our kids to help us all pay attention:
  • Don't underestimate the power of sleep.  A good night's sleep and food for energy are powerful tools to help maintain focus.
  • Minimize distractions.  
    • At home, prepare proper work spaces where necessary materials are easily accessed (computer outlet, pens/pencils, paper, printer, books, etc.)  See my post on setting up work spaces: http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/03/theme-thursday-sense-of-space-and.html
    • Make sure there are no outside noises, lights, entertainment systems near the workspace to woo or distract. 
    • Note that music is not necessarily a distraction.   Often music (background music, familiar music) can actually help focus attention.  The problem is that while music helps some focus, it can distract others.  This is something to work out for yourself and/or your child.
    • Squeezy toys or small hand manipulatives can also help individuals maintain and focus attention.  Like music, though, it can help some and distract others.  IF your child is having some issue focusing, you may want to try this.
    • In school, try to find ways to interact with the materials in class - even if  in a lecture, try to think of questions to ask or ways to use the information.  Play with it, tweak it.
  •  Sometimes paying attention simply means slowing down and observing, interpreting, and incorporating details and resisting distracting and competing impulses.
  • Jonah Lehrer (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 3, 2011 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904716604576542593019231326.html ) relates focusing with strong executive function skills.  Executive functions include focusing, organizing, prioritizing, sustaining and shifting focus, managing and regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. He notes that these skills can be developed and nurtured through difficult board games, computer memory and skill games, yoga, tae-kwon-do, and through interactive curricula in the classroom.

  • Establishing and maintaining schedules, helps set and model 'regulation' and may help children resist impulses and focus on the task at hand, knowing other needs will be met at other points in the schedule.  Note, though, that there always needs to be some flexibility in establishing and maintaining schedules.  Being too rigid creates all sorts of issues and conflicts.
  • In another article "Attention and Intelligence" http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2010/04/attention_and_intelligence.php Jonah Lehere notes that, 
"...delayed gratification isn't really about gritting our teeth or exerting willpower: it's about controlling the spotlight of attention. Likewise, intelligence isn't just about remembering abstract facts - it's about controlling what thoughts we're thinking about in the first place."
"...So how can we bolster our selective attention abilities?...When we read a complex narrative - say, Proust or Woolf or DFW - we're forced to constantly exert our attentional muscles just to follow along. On a deeper level, however, we're also being asked to switch between different kinds of informational streams. We need to pay attention to the sentence, and to the subtleties of language and character and plot, but we need to also remain aware of the larger themes unfolding in the work."
  • Along this vein, go for walks, focus on different things.  Focus on the noises around you, the colors around you, the life around you, the odors around you, and the quiet around you.  Shift focus from one aspect to another, look for large details and small details in the objects around you.  Do this with pictures and illustrations in books and magazines, with sentences and paragraphs, with clothes or items in a store. Intentionally shift focus, see what you notice!
In closing, while writing this post,  this scene from Sister Act 2 (sorry, folks) kept popping into my stream of consciousness:  "If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention..."

And while so true, my next post will present the opposite agrument... quiet time, letting your mind roam and NOT pay attention is also important...

So please leave comments and join me next week for the counter argument.


    1. Thoughts just naturally seem to want to scatter so it is particularly difficult to focus when the information is presented in a boring manner or challenges the learner in some other way. It takes patience to comprehend new and sometimes uninteresting data. There is so much vying for our attention it seems even the news tries to stand on its head to gain audience attention. I think technology is transferring information in a way that is actually changing how society will learn in the future. But having the patience to struggle through learning will still be the key.

    2. I agree. I do think the way we use and process information is changing as the mode of relaying the messages change. Technology, tweets, sound and visual "bites" are changing our way of thinking, processing, and communicating. And, I think, unfortunately, education and educational techniques are not changing quickly enough with this. Thanks for your comment!

    3. Stephen King, when writing the first draft, likes quiet. But when rewriting, likes familiar music.

      I'm convinced that most people THINK they can multitask better than they actually do.

    4. Funny you mention King, I was going to include a YouTube clip of how he talks about the different types of music he listens to when writing (often hard rock!). I have the clip in one of my other blog posts - take a look if you're interested!

    5. Very interesting take on the theme. I pay more attention nowadays ...
      P is for...

    6. One challenge I have with my students that I tutor is making sure they are able to pay attention, concentrate on the task at hand. With some it's easy, with others more difficult. I'm constantly challenged in this way and usually find that humour works most of the time. I also try to make sure that what we are studying relates to their lives now or will relate in their immediate futures. With all that's going on in the world these days, especially in technology and communication, it is going to be a continuing challenge for these kids, as it is for me! Great post as usual and looking forward to next week's opposite argument.

      abcw team

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    8. Great tips for everyone, not just students! I find my mind does wander while at work when I'm doing tasks I find unfulfilling (left-brain tasks). :-) The technical term for letting your mind wander would be...ideating!

    9. While I hate that everything has a label these days (ADHD, ADD, etc) I do find that the harder I try to "pay attention" the more my mind seems to wander. I constantly find myself reading and re-reading pages after realizing that while my eyes had passed over each and every word - I had no earthly idea what the words were.

    10. this was a really interesting take on the letter P

    11. Working as a teacher, this was of great joy and interest to read and learn. Thank you. Please have a good new month.

      daily athens photo

    12. great thoughts as usual Meryl, esp on making a place for study time away from the TV & other distractions. I hate labels too, like Donna mentions, I was labeled a 'day dreamer' in almost every class but always had straight As... so something was sinking in although it looked like I was off in wonderland. everyone does have their own way of learning & with the labels esp those ways seem to be added & changed all the time. Now tho, I may have the memory of a flea, but that is a different story!

    13. Great tips!

      I played too. Mine are here and here.

    14. Before I switched my full time career to artist, I was in the health fields and an educator for a myriad of people (labeled by others). Your list of advice is well thought out; your points focus the reader on pertinent facts and facets for quality education and self-esteem of the learner.
      P.S. I can see why you have a Ph.d. I also have a post graduate degree, although many who don't have any college background are just as informed. That's a blog post, too...

    15. Oh, wow! I also taught GT youth, but for FCPS. We're "neighbors" in the DMV area!

    16. Following my breath helps me focus, as does listening to sounds all around me. I also set a timer for 15 minutes at a time, because this reminds me I don't have to focus forever, and helps keep me on track. I tend to hyperfocus on a task, beyond the point of usefulness, because I want to finish or be "perfect" but I'm learning that this is an illusion.

    17. Thanks so much for dropping by the Be-Bop-A Blog Hop! I'm a follower and I hope you'll stop by again soon! Have a great day! :)


    18. Huh? What? ;-)
      My ABC Wednesday this week is Pink!

    19. Your last bullet point is so true, clear the mind and concentrate, always rewarding. However I'm not too good in 'paying attention' if something is repetitive (read meetings), my mind drifts off, which is OK until someone asks me what I think, not a clue.

    20. Great post for P. I work primarily from home (sign on the work network from my computer so I don't have to commute most days). It's hard for me to avoid paying attention to the birds bathing on my deck when I should be focusing on work. That's why I have my desk pointing away from the window but I still hear the little chirp chirping and sometimes just have to turn around and take a look.

    21. NOT pay attention ... I'd like to read that. We had this Japanese-American professor who played classical music while we were taking an exam. I flunked the exam. I think that was a mixture of both paying attention and not paying attention.

    22. I love those movies of Whoopi Goldberg! What I learned as a teacher is this: if you want to draw the attention of your class you have to show something nice, funny, interesting , unusual , spectacular.....and as soon as you have the attention you can start your lesson . If a lesson is well prepared it's easy to convey what you want to say.great post!

    23. My mind is always wandering - one day it will get lost;-)

    24. Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment!

      Hope you are having a nice and happy week****

    25. I have what I call my reading corner, it contains my books, pencils, pens, and computer. Of course my computer is a laptop, so it has a special place, except when I am using it here in my little reading corner. I have to have quiet when I am reading, I just like the quiet. After raising 5 children, I have come to appreciate my quiet time. hehe