In Teaching Naked, Bowen suggests that adult educators “make paying attention a learning outcome (and note that paying implies that it costs something)” (2012). It seems that a great deal of concern around shrinking attention spans is helping to fuel the fire of resistance against use of social technology in the adult classroom, as social media and our increasing use of ‘screens’ are blamed (perhaps prematurely) for our inability to maintain the focus of a goldfish (McSpadden, 2015). But is this fear warranted?
The quote from the text really gave me pause; what an interesting notion, that a student giving me their attention means that they give something up. I’ll admit that this idea puzzled me to the point of googling the origins of the phrase ‘pay attention’. Here is what I found:
“Why do we pay attention, heed, court, and respect? We also pay visits and compliments, don’t we? Well, the idea behind all of this payment is one of duty (softened from the “debt” meaning), so that you “owe” someone your attention or respect, or it is your “duty” to visit or compliment someone. A lot of the “duty” meaning has been lost so that now we say, for example, pay a visit to mean simply “visit”.” (“Take Our Word”, n.d.)
So do adult educators feel that a student’s attention is ‘owed’ to them? If you ask some of my colleagues and at least one of my friends that is currently developing a university course; yes, and if students don’t pay attention and subsequently fail it is their own bloody faults.
But this quote makes me feel like we should view the attention of our students totally differently; in a world of endless and sometimes overwhelming stimuli, attention is precious, fleeting, and needs to be earned. What I like about chapters 4 – 7 of the text is that they contain information that operates on the basic idea that we cannot fight the accessibility of the digital and online world, and in fact we should embrace it. Being responsible educators (ie, giving a crap about the type of students we spit out into the world) means that we need to help those students learn how to evaluate and reflect on all that stimuli, instead of expending our energy on fighting its’ presence in our classrooms.
In Attention Must Be Paid!, Barry Schwartz (2013) treats this apparent trend of shorter attention spans as nearly a medical issue, referring to a need to diagnose and treat it as if it were an illness that plagues our society. He argues that, by being exposed to these snippets of information that are tailored to today’s digital media consumers as opposed to longer and more in depth articles or, dare I say it, lectures, we are being set up for ‘intellectual deficiency’. But is that true?
If we apply the theory of distributed cognition to the way our informational world is evolving, we could argue that by sharing so much knowledge and experience and by storing in a place so accessible, we are actually freeing up the collective human cognitive capacity to perform even more complex tasks (“Cognitive dissonance”, n.d.). Bowen (2012) suggests that what educators need to do is work with students to help them learn how to navigate, evaluate, and build on the information that currently resides in our screens, and I would wholeheartedly agree. Why spend so much energy on memorizing and recalling content that is readily available to us at a moment’s notice, when we could be working with that content at a higher cognitive level? There are times when a sustained attention span is important, yes, but should we focus on that, at the expense of ignoring the opportunities that having the Internet at our finger tips provides? Do we have to choose one or the other?
At my workplace the mindset is definitely firmly in the camp that clients will get out of our workshops what they put into them and it is totally their responsibility to Pay! Attention!. That being said, most of our workshops are probably pretty boring, and there is too much content for the time allotted. As someone that used to bring colouring books to my grade 11 chemistry classes (which was a topic I enjoyed and got an A in) so I could colour while I listened to lecture, I feel the pain of anyone that sits in my resume class.
I need to work harder to earn the attention of the students in my workshops, and to better use information already available on the Internet. The thought of recreating the workshops from scratch has been very daunting, and so the idea of simply finding and using resources already available online is very exciting. I especially like the idea of having students evaluate and critique those resources; I plan to use that technique to have student evaluate sample resumes they find online, as well as other job search preparation resources. This will help them develop two skills; actual resume preparation, and the critical evaluation of information they find online. And I feel that all educators need to take on the responsibility of building the latter into their courses, so that students leave our classes better equipped to deal with the massive amount of information they are presented with by the moment.
Bowen, J. A. (2012). Teaching Naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Distributed cognition. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2015 from the Edutech Wiki: http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Distributed_cognition
McSpadden, K. (2015, May 14). You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/
Schwartz, B. (2013, September 23). Attention must be paid!. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/09/paying_attention_is_a_skill_schools_need_to_teach_it.html
Words to the Wise. (n.d.). In Take our word for it. Retrieved from http://www.takeourword.com/TOW123/page2.html