It would be foolish to expect commercial sources to force complexity on an unwilling public. For them, it’s all about ears, eyeballs, and bottom lines. But there is some reason to hope that noncommercial institutions—especially educational institutions—can help reverse the attention-deficit trend by demanding more of their audiences. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that perseverance—what she calls “grit”—is a better predictor of academic success than IQ or SAT scores. Grit is about more than sustained attention. It is about responding to challenges by rolling up your sleeves and working harder. But sustained attention is surely a key part of grit. If people don’t keep paying attention to a task, they can hardly be expected to persevere with it. We can also see the importance of teaching kids to pay attention in the outstanding success of KIPP charter schools, documented in books by Jay Matthews and Paul Tough.
Most of the existing research on training sustained attention has focused on either mitigating the effects of brain injury or treating kids with ADHD. There are various interventions that have produced measurable positive effects, but one must be careful not to assume that what works to bring pathological cases a little closer to normal will also work with normal cases, especially since the problems with brain-injured and ADHD people are likely mostly cognitive whereas the problems I’m worrying about are probably mostly motivational. When it comes to normal people, there is evidence that training in mindfulness meditation improves sustained attention.
There is also evidence, some of it collected by Duckworth and colleagues, that giving kids not only task goals, but detailed plans for achieving those goals improves sustained attention. And in the KIPP schools, they teach first-graders to pay attention by training them to SLANT (Sit up, Look and Listen to the speaker, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the teacher). As Dave Levin, one of KIPPs founders, pointed out to me in an interview several years ago, KIPP developed this training when he and co-founder Mike Feinberg realized that basic learning skills that are just presupposed in middle-class kids are mostly absent among poor kids from the inner city. These skills aren’t anyone’s birthright. And my worry is that because of our resignation to short attention spans, we can no longer take these skills for granted in anyone.
Research on training attention may one day produce a magic bullet. For now, I’d be satisfied if we nurtured sustained attention in the same way your personal trainer builds up your biceps—by gradually demanding more and more of students’ attention muscles in the classroom.
Developing the “sustained attention muscle” should be a central part of education. Is there any evidence that it is? I fear not, and I think that recent trends are not encouraging. In universities, value is placed on being a popular teacher who commands large enrollments. One doesn’t do that by demanding sustained engagement with difficult material. And MOOCs, whatever their potential cost-saving benefits, enable students to watch presentations in brief snatches, perfect for the attentionally challenged, which in turn pressures instructors to organize their material in matching, bite-sized portions. We all let students bring their laptops into class, which virtually guarantees that they will be shuttling between email and web surfing while occasionally taking notes on what is being said. None of this is a recipe for strengthening the sustained attention muscle.
Perhaps I’m crying wolf. Perhaps there are things going on in popular culture to suggest a countervailing appreciation of experiences that demand sustained attention. There are a few somewhat hopeful developments. The longform journalism that used to appear in the pages of The New Yorker and a handful of other magazines is now reappearing online. And there is great enthusiasm for long-form television, as evidenced by shows like The Wire, Homeland, and Breaking Bad. But I’m not sure that the TV shows do the job, despite the complexity of their narratives and the subtlety of their characters. What we don’t know about TV is how people actually watch these shows. First, the shows are produced in bite-sized installments. And second, viewers can always hit pause to check incoming texts and emails or grab a snack. Indeed, there was a revealing study by Leif Nelson and some colleagues a few years ago that showed that even though viewers said that commercials detracted from their enjoyment of TV shows, in actual fact, the interruptions led to higher ratings of the shows than when viewers watched them uninterrupted. Nelson’s explanation of this result did not appeal to issues of sustained attention, but it seems possible that the attention breaks that commercials bring play a role in making the shows more fun to watch.
The world is complex, and it isn’t going to get any simpler. Unless we can create a population that is capable of thinking about complexity in complex ways, it is highly unlikely that the problems of global warming; economic inequality; access to affordable, high-quality health care; or any of the other challenges the U.S. and the rest of the world face will get adequate solutions. Good solutions to any of these problems will be complex, and they will not win support from a population that demands simplicity. Teachers have a responsibility to train complex minds that are suited to a complex world. This is at least as important as teaching young people mathematics, biology, or literature. For teachers, at all levels, attention must be paid to teaching that attention must be paid.