Paying Attention Is a Skill: Schools Need to Teach It

Getting schooled.
Sept. 23 2013 2:40 PM

Attention Must Be Paid!

Schools need to teach students to maintain attention, not cater to short-attention spans.

Distracted child
We need to teach our children to pay attention.

Photo by Shutterstock

There is no doubt that “diminished attention” is a correct diagnosis of the intellectual temperament of our age. I see it to a greater degree each year even in the students I teach, who are among the very best that our high schools have to offer.

But how to treat it? Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience. What’s the point of having a New York Times article about the U.S. stance toward the Syria that continues on an inside page if nobody is going to turn to the inside page? Even talking about “inside pages” is anachronistic, since more and more people get their news online, with articles that are “up-to-the-minute” but frustrating in their brevity.

By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed. Yes, there is no point in publishing a long article if no one will read it to the end. The question is, what does it take to get people to read things to the end?

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The key point for teachers and principals and parents to realize is that maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

In other words, the “short-attention” phenomenon is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we tell ourselves that people can’t maintain attention. Second, we do nothing to nurture their ability to maintain attention. And sure enough, we “discover” that people can’t maintain attention.

A person who is my age can read a very brief and oversimplified discussion of a complex issue and note that it is brief and oversimplified. Such a person might even try to go deeper by consulting other sources. But what of a person who has been raised from the crib on such material? For this person, there is no “brief and oversimplified.” There is no experience of “long and complex” to provide a contrast. Before long, people stop realizing that they have an intellectual deficiency that needs correction. Oversimplified becomes the only game in town, at which point, it stops being “over” simplified. If people are fed a steady diet of the oversimple, it can’t help but affect the way they think about things. Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.

It is easy to find villains in this war on attention. The news media, both print and broadcast, bear more than a little responsibility. So do magazines—even highbrow ones. What are the chances that we will ever see the like of Hiroshima, by John Hersey (1946), Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt (1963), A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee (1965), or The Yellow Wind, by David Grossman (1988) in The New Yorker’s pages ever again? And political discourse offers absolutely no exposure to complexity. I have no doubt that President Obama has a subtle and agile mind. Yet he almost never demands such agility and subtlety from his audience, no doubt because his advisers are telling him about the public’s short attention span.

Perhaps the most vivid example of our lost attention is TED and its famous 18-minute talks. I’m a huge fan of TED, having spoken at TED events several times myself. I think TED is a real gift to the world. Virtually all TED talks are interesting, and many are breathtaking. But in TED talks, we have some of the world’s most subtle minds talking about some of the world’s most complex ideas in 18 minutes! At TED events themselves, with live presentations, the simplification can be mitigated by post-talk discussion—with fellow audience members or with the speakers themselves. Some in the audience have questions or see connections or raise problems that have eluded you, and the post-talk interaction that enriches your understanding of the presentation is a key part of the TED experience. But when you watch these talks on your computer, it is just you and those 18 minutes. TED talks have been watched more than 1 billion times. This can’t help but establish a standard for attention and tolerance of complexity that carries over into other parts of life. And the habit of thinking long and hard—of concentrating—gets degraded.

Many college professors have begun incorporating TED talks into their syllabi. The talks are so cutting edge, and so entertaining, that they are an attractive alternative to, say, an article in an academic journal. But when professors do this, they miss the opportunity to demand sustained attention from students and to nurture it.

Must we accept the short attention span generation as a fait accompli and cater to it, or can we reverse a powerful and I think destructive trend?