In recent weeks I have been revising and updating the IAE-pedia entry on Brain Science. This entry currently contains 29 sections, each dealing with a specific education topic in brain science. The brain science section on Attention is currently—and deservedly—receiving a lot of attention. This IAE Blog entry is based on the IAE-pedia Brain Science entry on Attention.
We all know what it means to “pay attention.” And those of us who know children certainly routinely see examples of children who are or are not paying attention to the needs/wants of their parents, childcare givers, teachers, and friends.
Nowadays, we also routinely see children paying a great deal of attention to computer games, cell phones, and other electronic forms of entertainment. Children certainly are not losing the ability to learn to pay attention to what really interests them. However, it appears that many children pay less attention to the demands of reading, math, and other broad, deep learning tasks.
What is Attention?
Quoting from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention:
Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. Attention has also been referred to as the allocation of processing resources.
Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Attention remains a major area of investigation within education, psychology and neuroscience. Areas of active investigation involve determining the source of the signals that generate attention, the effects of these signals on the tuning properties of sensory neurons, and the relationship between attention and other cognitive processes like working memory and vigilance. A relatively new body of research is investigating the phenomenon of traumatic brain injuries and their effects on attention.
I first became interested in the topic of attention after I joined the University of Oregon faculty in 1967 and met Michael Posner, a newly hired faculty member in the Psychology Department. His area of research was (still is) attention. Eventually he gained worldwide fame for his work and became a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Quoting from the Posner reference:
University of Oregon psychologist Michael Posner was named today by the National Academy of Science as the 2012 winner of the John J. Carty Award for the Advancement of Science. … Posner, professor emeritus of psychology, was chosen for his "outstanding contributions to the understanding of spatial attention and development of attentional systems in children, and for his pioneering research with Marcus Raichle and Steve Petersen on the neural basis of cognition using non-invasive functional brain imaging methods."
Research on Attention
Attention has long been recognized as an important topic in brain science and education. Quoting from Sarter, Givens, and Bruno (2001):
Beginning with Mackworth’s experiments in the 1950s, the assessment of sustained attention (or vigilance) performance typically has utilized situations in which an observer is required to keep watch for inconspicuous signals over prolonged periods of time. The state of readiness to respond to rarely and unpredictably occurring signals is characterized by an overall ability to detect signals (termed ‘vigilance decrement'). The psychological construct of ‘vigilance’, or ‘sustained attention’, has been greatly advanced in recent decades, allowing the development and validation of diverse tasks for the test of sustained attention in human and animals and thereby fostering research on the neuronal circuits mediating sustained attention performance in humans and laboratory animals.
Quoting from Schwartz, Katrina (12/5/2013):
The ubiquity of digital technology in all realms of life isn’t going away, but if students don’t learn how to concentrate and shut out distractions, research shows they’ll have a much harder time succeeding in almost every area.
“The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning.
Perhaps the most well known study on concentration is a longitudinal study conducted with over 1,000 children in New Zealand by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychology and neuroscience professors at Duke University. The study tested children born in 1972 and 1973 regularly for eight years, measuring their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Then, the researchers tracked those same children down at the age of 32 to see how well they fared in life. The ability to concentrate was the strongest predictor of success.
“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. [Bold added for emphasis.]
The last sentence is worth repeating. Being able to focus one’s attention on a task at hand and to maintain this focus over an extended period of time is a very important skill for both children and adults. We have known this for a long time. For example, quoting from Sylwester and Cho (1992):
Helping students to “pay attention” has always been a central concern of educators. Attention—the ability to focus the mind—is a prerequisite to learning and a basic element in classroom motivation and management. Students who have difficulty concentrating may suffer from seriously disruptive illnesses such as attention deficit disorder and dyslexia.
ADD and ADHD
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ADHD) are important and highly publicized learning disorders. Quoting from WebMD (n.d.):
The symptoms of ADHD include inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. These are traits that most children display at some point or another. But to establish a diagnosis of ADHD, sometimes referred to as ADD, the symptoms should be inappropriate for the child's age.
Adults also can have ADHD; in fact, up to half of adults diagnosed with the disorder had it as children. When ADHD persists into adulthood, symptoms may vary. For instance, an adult may experience restlessness instead of hyperactivity. In addition, adults with ADHD often have problems with interpersonal relationships and employment.
There is considerable ADD and ADHD literature available on the Web. My 12/8/2013 Google search of ADD ADHD produced over 45 million hits. The Website http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/ indicates that ADHD affects an estimated 3% to 5% of children and adults in the United States. See also http://psychcentral.com/disorders/childhood-adhd/.
Our educational system is used to dealing with the challenges of ADD and ADHD. It must now find ways to cope with the new challenge of a huge number of students being raised in a computer-based entertainment environment in which they routinely are being distracted from developing their overall attention abilities. Instead, they are becoming very used to the idea of instant gratification that is inherent to modern electronics-based forms of entertainment. For many children, this desire for instant gratification is well developed before they enter school. This is a very very important problem facing parents, childcare givers, and teachers.
What You Can Do
Teachers have developed a number of different techniques for getting the attention of students in their classes, and then focusing this attention on a new topic the teacher is going to present. See, for example, http://addcentre.co.uk/MaintainingAttention.htm. Think about your repertoire of attention-getting and attention-holding skills. Analyze how well they work. Carefully observe your students while they are “supposed to be” focusing on a specific task. What percentage seem to be on task? What do you do about students who do not appear to be on task? Experiment with new ways that might improve your level of success in this endeavor.
Sarter, M., Givens, B., & Bruno, J. (2001). The cognitive neuroscience of sustained attention: Where top-down meets bottom-up. Brain Research Reviews. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://faculty.psy.ohio-state.edu/bruno/PDF%20files/top%20down%20ms.pdf.
Schwartz, K. (12/5/2013). Age of distraction: Why it's crucial for students to learn to focus. Mind/Shift. Retrieved 12/7/2013 from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/12/age-of-distraction-why-its-crucial-for-students-to-learn-to-focus/.
Sylwester, R., & Cho, J. (1992). What brain research says about paying attention. Educational Leadership. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec92/vol50/num04/What-Brain-Research-Says-About-Paying-Attention.aspx.
WebMD (n.d.). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Symptoms of ADHD. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/adhd-symptoms.
Suggested Readings from IAE
You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button. Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.
Here are some examples of IAE publications that might interest you.
21st century skills. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/21st-century-skills.html.
Educating students for their possible futures. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/educating-students-for-their-possible-futures.html.
General educational goals in the United States. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/general-educational-goals-in-the-united-states.html.
Instant gratification. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2009-24.html.
Moursund, D. (2013). Transfer of learning. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 12/8/2013 http://iae-pedia.org/Transfer_of_Learning.
Moursund, D. (2013). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 12/8/2013 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.