Information Age Education
   Issue Number 138
May, 2014   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are available: Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the seventh IAE Newsletter in a long series devoted to Education for Students’ Futures. Within the long series, this is the first of a four-part mini series that explores one important element of social media technology that is already profoundly changing our culture: the use of increasingly and often distractingly present wireless cell phone and other digital communication devices in social settings. The first article (below) introduces the issue. Subsequent articles suggest how to help children with severe attentional disorders appropriately use the devices, how to adapt K-12 instruction in regular classrooms in light of this new development, and how administrators might assist teachers to function effectively with social media developments.

Education for Students' Futures:
Part 7: Attention in an Increasingly Distractive World

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education?
University of Oregon

Eamon Campbell
Therapy Assistant
Organization for Research and Learning

This IAE Newsletter explores the central roles that attention plays in cognition in our evolving culture and in our changing educational systems. Research into our attention systems has made remarkable progress in the past couple of decades. While some of the research has been integrated into our schooling systems, much remains to be done.

The four article mini series that begins with this newsletter will (1) provide a functional description of how our attention system works and (2) suggest how to reduce the distracting attentional elements of recent communication devices in our increasingly overloaded culture. They will suggest educational techniques that are designed for students with attention disorders and for regular classroom students who are distracted by cell phones and other portable communication devices.

Emotion and Feelings

Emotion is an unconscious system that identifies variations from normality (sounds, smells, etc). The renowned emotion researcher Antonio Damasio uses the term feelings to represent a conscious perception of what's occurring during emotional arousal. Feelings can thus bias the direction of an emotional arousal (1999).

Emotion activates our attentional system, which identifies the nature and location of the variability. Attention then activates memory, thought, and problem solving systems—and finally a behavioral response emerges. Attention is thus a cognitive gateway, leading to a cognitively based response.

In this series of IAE Newsletters about attention and distractions, we are mainly interested in individual people. However, a group, organization, corporation, government, or the world can also attend to a potential problem situation, and may be distracted from doing so. The people running a clothing store pay attention to trends in clothing styles and forecasts of an exceptionally cold winter or hot summer, and provide merchandise to fit their customers’ needs. Stores that are distracted from such foresightful behavior tend to lose customers. The problem of global warming has caught the attention of many of us, but the cognitive processing capabilities of national governments and many global organizations leave much to be desired. Politics can be a major distracter.

A Cultural Shift in Attention

Smart phones and other easily portable communication technologies have become integral and important to our everyday lives, but they create an attentional problem. It seemed like a good idea initially to insert the names of everyone we know into our wireless social media devices since we would thus have constant access to each other. What happened, however, has become an attentional dilemma. Even if we don't want to immediately interact with someone, we still have to decide whether or not to respond to the phone ringtone or vibration. We have to stop attending to what we are currently attending to, and make a decision as to whether to immediately attend to the phone. (We may attend to it by turning it off!)

Email spawned social networks. Facebook is now the largest of these, with over a billion participants from throughout the world.

Young people especially were initially enthralled. Interacting with relatives, friends, and acquaintances near and far seemed neat. And it is wonderful to get caught up in the moment of something fascinating and then to share it with friends (a concept that social media have now redefined). Alas, one’s social media friends may not be as fascinated as we were by seeing what our restaurant meal looks like. Social media participants soon realized that they were getting a lot more information than they really wanted to have—but they still couldn't get their eyes off their hand-held devices. Many of us get a level of immediate gratification from such things as receiving messages, sending messages, and playing fast-paced electronic games.

Family and friends had taught us about good manners, but they tended to focus more on one-to-one and small group interactions and not on the complexities that cell phone and social media present. To be able to use the wireless devices to contact 911 or a tow truck on the rare occasions when they're needed is now overshadowed by constant messages about the often inane. It's no longer simply about one-to-one conversation but messages are increasingly sent to everyone on the list. The average adolescent receives and sends about 100 messages a day.

And as if that isn't enough, an increasing number of TV cable channels, computer websites, and electronic games also seek our attention. Attention does indeed play an increasingly central gate-keeping role in just about everything we do.

The Basics of Attention

The mental maladies that people confront throughout their life, from the possibility of an autistic beginning to an Alzheimer's ending, are often attentional disorders at some level. Inattention similarly leads to automobile accidents, classroom misbehavior, marital strife, and a whole lot more. Effective attention is thus central to a high quality of life, and most people achieve it (at least most of the time).

Michael Posner's analysis of the underlying neurobiology of attention (2007) is widely accepted. He identified three functionally separate networks that regulate attention: (1) the alerting network prepares us to receive new information and to maintain a necessary level of alertness, (2) the orienting network shifts our current focus to something deemed possibly more important, and (3) the executive attention network draws heavily on memory to recognize the identity of the new challenge (foreground), determine its significance, and then to separate it from background information (which it then merely monitors or ignores). Since it’s often not clear whether a challenge is a danger or opportunity, or which of several current challenges is most important, this temporary holding network (commonly called our working brain) is critical to the resolution of such ambiguities. A dysfunctional executive network may attempt to solve the wrong problem, or to solve problems it doesn’t understand. This error occurs at all levels, from within individual brains to the sets of interacting brains that constitute a company or government.

Such factors as our current temperament and local environment can affect our attention, thought, and consequent behavior. We thus differ in our attentional preferences, and in our capacity to regulate attention. What an odd world it would be if we were all culturally and cognitively cloned, with the same interests and abilities. The individual differences in attention that we confront are challenging, but to complain about them is like a custodian complaining that the floors are dirty. Human variability defines life.

The Dilemmas of Attention

To recapitulate, emotion alerts our attention system to potential dangers and opportunities. Attention then identifies the time/space elements of the challenge so that we can rationally determine how best to respond. When we're too focused on a specific element of a challenge, we might miss some other element that's important. When we spread our attention over multiple environmental elements, we might consider something as peripheral when it's actually very important. It's not surprising that the terms tunnel-vision and scatterbrain are conceptually embedded within our mind.

From Noise to Signal. Daniel Goleman’s book (2013) focuses on the dilemmas caused by increased technologically-driven attentional demands, many of which are mitigated by how our brain processes multiple attentional dilemmas, such as those identified above. A growing concern is that we're moving towards a time in which our interactions will increasingly flow through machines, and we'll begin to lose such important evolutionary capabilities as the ability to read the facial expressions and gestures that are significant in developing comprehension and empathy.

We have long used visual (reading, writing) and auditory (phones, radio) formats that didn’t require face-to-face communication. What has now changed is the rapid development and widespread use of cell phones and related social networking communication media. Cell phones now also allow for face-to-face interaction.

The Loss of Context. The relentless demands of portable devices that seek attention to things at a distance means that we lose a sense of what's happening here and now.

The onslaught of digital information leads to a loss of context through such shortcuts as determining the nature of the message by the heading, rapidly skimming messages, and ignoring voice mails. These kinds of shortcuts reduce the time we need to reflect on the information we receive or on our possible responses that we often shorten so they in turn will be attended to.

We get frustrated by the complexities of cultural problems so we often seek opinion-oriented venues (such as FOX, MSNBC, and related websites) to provide us with biased news and commentary. The search for pundits who suggest how we should think keeps us from having to think for ourselves and thus to possibly change our perspectives.

Machine Solutions to Machine Problems. Although we may want to discuss a problem with a human being, we can anticipate an increased reliance on machine-driven communication. We all experience this when we try to contact a business and are asked to respond to a series of recorded questions driven by the buttons we press.

New technologies are fortunately emerging to solve current and developing problems. When folks became concerned that an unflattering picture would forever follow them via social media, Snapchat and similar venues emerged. Take and send a picture, and those who receive it get only a few seconds to see it before it's permanently removed from their device. See

The Search for Biological Solutions. Humans historically are good at developing and using new technologies. We formerly had a long time to do this before the next major technological arrival, but the current rapidity of change is staggering. Still, mastering technologies is something that most (but not all) young people seem to do well.

The next three IAE Newsletters in this mini series describe how educators can help students with severe attentional disorders and those in regular classrooms to function appropriately with potentially distracting communicative devices.


Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York: Harcourt.

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York: Harper.

Posner, M.I., & Rothbart, M.K. (2007). Educating the human brain. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. Abstracts of the book and its 10 individual chapters are available online at


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon and the co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press), The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press), and How to Explain a Brain: An Educator's Handbook of Brain Terms and Cognitive Processes (2005, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit four books for IAE ( He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Contact information:

Eamon Campbell is a therapy assistant at Organization for Research and Learning (ORL), a private practice in the Seattle area that provides behavior services for Autistic children. He has a Masters Degree from The University of Washington in Special Education with an emphasis in Behavior Analysis, and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). Contact information:

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.