Capturing the Wild Attention
© 7 September 2021 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Who can capture and hold your attention? Can you domesticate it so that one of the answers is yourself?


As an educator, I have a three-part job. I am to

  1. Know the material that my students need to learn.

  2. Order and structure that material so that it can be learned a piece at a time by a novice.

  3. Capture and hold the attention of my students.

There is no intrinsic reason why the skill to do these three should be correlated. Indeed, a tension between the first two is so pronounced that it has its own name: expert blind spot. But it is the third that I wish to write about today.

“‍Capturing attention‍” is, to me, a beautifully evocative phrase. It brings to mind stalking through the wilds of my students’ minds, tracking down the elusive beast called “‍attention‍” and snaring it with nets. So captured I try to hold it, dragging it back to camp, putting it in a cage, and ensuring it gets adequate food and exercise.

It like this image because it appeals to the romantic in me. I like it because it reminds me that the skill to capture attention can easily be used for ill and I should be careful of the diet I give the attentions I capture. And I like it because it causes me to ponder a follow-up question: how could learning be facilitated without this trapping?

The obvious example from this word analogy would be to use domesticated attentions instead of wild attentions: attentions that understand the symbiosis of teacher and learner and will come on their own and remain without holding. In other words, students who will give their full attention to teachers who are not captivating.

I have known students with domesticated and well-trained attentions. They describe courses by referring on their content and flow, not their instructor or presentations. When they read research papers they have questions about content, not only presentation. They do well in classes other students find difficult and have little trouble learning on their own. Often I’ve noticed they prefer textbooks to tutorials and text to video.

But how did they learn to tame their attention? How did I tame mine? I’ve never found convincing teaching on this subject, nor have my efforts to teach others to attend when not captive yielded noticeable results.

I am persuaded that a tame intelligence is not a mental capacity, using yesterday’s terminology. Even medically-diagnosed attention deficit does not seem to relate to this: I’ve known some who hard trouble staying on any topic for more than a few moments but who were nonetheless able to bring their attention back to the matter at hand again and again. It also appears to change: I have known students to go from wild to tame attention over the course of just the few years I see them in school.

I am thus left to conclude that a well-behaved attention is one of those mental aptitudes, those components of intelligence that are neither learned assets nor inborn capacities, but rather an area where intelligence can grow.

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