A is for Attention

22 08 2010

High alert! Classroom in Palestine

Three news stories last week –  all of which dealt with the pervasive role of technology in our lives –  touched on the issue of attention and its role in learning. A front page story in The New York Times reported on a trip into the wilderness undertaken by five academics, the purpose of which, according to psychologist David Strayer, was to study “what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory, and learning are affected”. Strayer added: “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

Then there was the publicity associated with a new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, documenting one family’s retreat from an over-reliance on information technology. The book’s blurb reads:

Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth.

Finally (and more directly relevant to education), The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a move on the part of a handful of teachers to “unplug” their classrooms. One of the teachers was quoted as saying, “Banishing the gear improved the course.  …The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online… They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth.”


While it might be premature to talk about a backlash against so-called ‘ed tech’, there does seem to be a growing awareness as to its limitations, even its risks, especially with regard to its impact on attention.  This is not to deny the enormous benefits that accrue from the use of technological aids outside the classroom – indeed, the capacity of video games, for example, to focus attention, often over a considerable period of time, is well documented, and it’s not impossible to imagine learners (of the right disposition) making exponential gains solely through gaming (assuming the games themselves have been designed to incorporate second language learning opportunities).

Nevertheless, in terms of the quality of classroom life, the proliferation of digitial gadgetry may be having negative consequences on learning, specifically in the way that multiple information channels conspire to divert, disperse or otherwise interfere with, focal attention. We’ve known this ever since the first mobile phone rang in one of our classes.  Nowadays the presence of technology may be less obtrusive, but is no less distracting. As long ago (relatively speaking) as 1998, Linda Stone, formerly of Apple, coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA)  to characterise the kind of restless digital flitting that results from the need to stay constantly informed and in touch. Translated to a classroom context, CPA would hardly seem conducive to learning.

Why not? Because – as the psychologist above said – everything that you remember and forget depends on attention. The more dispersed the attention, the less likelihood of remembering, while the more heightened the attention, the better the remembering, and hence the better the learning.  This is as true for language learning as for any other kind of learning.  As psycholinguists Nick Ellis and Peter Robinson put it: “What is attended is learned, and so attention controls the acquisition of language itself” (2008, p. 3). Likewise, Dick Schmidt (2001) argues that only through the exercise of attention is input converted to intake: “Unattended stimuli persist in immediate short-term memory for only a few seconds at best, and attention is the necesary and sufficient condition for long-term memory storage to occur” (p. 16).  The rest is noise.

Indeed, from a cognitivist perspective, teaching might well be defined as the ‘management of attention for pedagogical purposes’. Managing attention means both drawing attention to the subject at hand, and drawing attention away from whatever might be a distraction.  In the case of the latter, this might mean eliminating competing stimuli by shutting down peripheral channels.  In other words, by unplugging the classroom.

Whether or not you’re prepared to go that far, here are some tips for maximising learners’ attention:

  • make sure all heads are up before transitioning to a new stage or activity
  • ensure your own attention is well distributed, and embraces all students equally, including those on the fringes
  • use ‘theatrical’ techniques (e.g. eye-contact, gesture, changes in voice pitch and voice quality) to highlight key lesson content
  • make the learning objectives explicit
  • draw connections across stages, and from one lesson to another
  • use examples from the learners’ own lives, using their names (Juana always takes the bus to school)
  • use the board sparingly and judiciously – too much boardwork obscures the key lesson content
  • drill key items in the lesson – not because this promotes accuracy, or forms good habits, but because it serves to make important lesson content more salient
  • eliminate distractions: ensure books are closed and technological aids are switched off during teacher-focused presentation stages, or when learners are supposed to be interacting face-to-face in pairs/groups
  • negotiate the use of aids and technology, such as dictionaries, laptops, etc, so that learners must ask permission to use them, or use them only at designated stages
  • reduce interference from stimulus overload. e.g. unnecessary visual effects in Powerpoints, background ‘muzak’ during silent reading, etc.
  • encourage (younger) learners to show understanding by nodding affirmatively during teacher-fronted presentation/explanation stages. (This idea comes from the ‘SLANT’ technique developed in a group of US charter schools – kids have to Sit up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with their eyes).

Notice that I’ve not said anything about maintaining a high activity turnover (so as not to over-tax attention spans, for example) nor about activities having to be fun. This is because an emphasis on activity for activity’s sake may be counterproductive, in that it serves to divert attention onto the activity itself, and not onto the language that mediates the activity.


Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. 2008. An introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Language Instruction. In Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. 2001. Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.