What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
The placing of attention is fundamental to learning. What is the nature of attention? What are the constraints on the placing of attention? What energies are required?
As teachers, we often want to direct where students place their attention. How might considerations of the constraints and energies required in placing attention affect pedagogical decisions?
There are two aspects to the placing of attention: directing attention towards something, and maintaining that attention on something for a period of time.
I am interested in conscious attention here, although we undoubtedly attend to things unconsciously.
Within conscious attention, we can choose to place our attention on something (voluntarily), or something may attract our attention involuntarily.
We can place our attention with something present, or something past/future.
Here are a couple of 'experiments' you might like to try regarding the placing of attention:
Listen to a radio or someone talking whilst reading a book. Try to attend to both. Do this for a couple of minutes.
What exactly can you recall about what was said? What of the book? Can you attend to both at the same time?
Try the experiment again (perhaps with different stimuli), noticing where your attention is placed. Where exactly was your attention placed throughout the experiment? Did your attention drift to something other than the radio and the book? Did you direct your attention, or was it drawn?
Now, try listening to the radio or reading a book whilst thinking about something that happened yesterday. Do this for a couple of minutes.
Can you attend to both at the same time? How does the placing of attention change if we attend to something past?
Maintain your attention on just one thing, such as reading a book, or thinking about something from the past, or something else entirely. Do this for a few minutes.
What did you notice about the placing of your attention? Did you find it difficult to maintain attention solely on one thing? Are some things easier to attend to than others? Is maintaining attention different if attending to something present or past? If your attention was drawn away, to what was it drawn and when did you notice it happening?
Experiment 1: I find it difficult to fully attend to two things in the present at the same time, and whether they are visual, aural, tactile, etc.. I can hear the radio whilst reading, but my attention is placed on one or the other at any one time.
This is because attending seems to require mental capacity, and there appears to be only one 'space' for this to occur; my 'thoughts' shifts from one to the other (or sometimes to something else entirely).
Experiment 2: Attending to something from the past seems to preclude attention to something different in the present. It is though introspection makes my senses 'glaze over' (although I can still see, hear, touch, etc.).
If my attention shifts back to the present, I lose my 'train of thought' about the past event. It feels as though more energy is required in attending to something from the past.
(By what mechanism does attending to something in the present bring to mind something from the past?)
Experiment 3: It requires energy to attend to one thing for a sustained period of time, and perhaps more energy if there are many stimuli, as we must 'block them out' in order to maintain attention on one thing. I find it more difficult to maintain attention on something that is not present.
My attention is often drawn without my noticing, and at some point I notice it happening and return my attention to where it is 'supposed' to be placed. Often my attention flips to something past or future while attending to something present.
1. There is energy required in consciously directing, and more energy required in maintaining, attention.
2. There is more energy required in consciously attending to something past or future than something in the present.
3. I cannot consciously attend to two different things simultaneously; there appears to only be the 'mental space' for one.
4. Some things are easier (require less energy) to attend to than others.
5. Attending to things in the present can evoke attentions to things past.
With considerations of attention and energy in mind, how might we as teachers create conditions for economy in learning?
... And finally, I am interested in the possibility of transferring energy through encounters. There is resonance and dissonance in encounters; how might we harness resonance to enhance the economy of learning?