Sunday, October 6, 2013

May I Have Your Attention, Please? Paying Attention to Teaching Attention

"Attention must be paid to such a person. Attention must be paid." Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman

A recent article in Slate decries the loss of students' attention spans (Schwartz, Barry. "Attention Must be Paid. Slate. 23 September 2013). Schwartz isn't the first to suggest schools need to help students develop longer and stronger attention spans. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2011) first made me begin rethinking the often fragmented structure of the nation's classrooms. More recently, many educators have jumped on the teaching grit pedagogical fad. This is the focus of Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

In her popular TED talk, Angela Lee Duckworth talks about what constitutes grit and her studies in education about how to build grit. The truth, says Duckworth, is that behavioral science doesn't know much about how to build or teach grit. It's this admission that I thought about while reading Schwartz's essay.

Rather than acknowledging that we don't know much about how to develop grit, Schwartz admonishes educators that they need to teach grit. He uses the SLANT methodology practiced at KIPP schools to substantiate his point:

"They teach first-graders to pay attention by training them to SLANT (sit up, Look and Listen to the speaker, Ask questions, Nod, and Track the teacher)."

What KIPP teaches and Schwartz describes is the essence of paying attention, the central idea of active listening. It's something I use as grading criteria in my speech classes when I tell students that the way they comport themselves as audience members will factor into their speech grades. But I'm on shaky ground because I have nothing but my observation of student behavior on which to justify evaluation of audience behavior, and I'm also watching and listening to speeches while I watch those students in their desks.

Schwartz goes on to use personal training as a metaphor for building attention spans. Gradually, a personal trainer teaches her clients to build muscle mass and endurance. Indeed, our country's commitment to sporting excellence offers a model for teaching grit. But unlike sports, schoolwork often requires a quiet mind and still body.

I illustrate this point to students with a story about myself: While taking a graduate-level research class, I spent ten hours solving a problem on a homework assignment, knowing that homework did not count as a grade. I did, however, know that the homework empowered me to complete the three research projects, so I stuck with the problem until I solved it.

As Duckworth notes, neither innate intelligence nor IQ determines success. Perseverance, tenacity, a stick-to-it attitude, etc. all have more to do with achievement than being smart. Duckworth cites research showing that students need a growth mindset: The belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can grow and change with your mindset. Showing students that the brain is malleable and changeable helps them realize that intelligence isn't fixed and that they can change past failures into future successes.

I've thought often about the question: Why do some students succeed through perseverance and others quit so easily? I'm a stick-to-it kind of person. I literally hate quitting, and I've rarely quit. I can identify what motivates me, but transferring that tenacity to others is more easily said than done. There's a real internal drive that accompanies the finish-no-matter-what mindset. In part, my drive comes from not wanting to satisfy those I perceive as wanting or expecting me to fail. At times I wish I cared less.

For his part, Schwartz argues:

Teachers have a responsibility to train complex minds that are suited to a complex world. This is at least as important as teaching young people mathematics, biology, or literature. For teachers, at all levels, attention must be paid to teaching that attention must be paid. 

Indeed. That's what makes Schwartz's allusion to Death of a Salesman so interesting to me and his admonition of teachers and current methodology so troubling. Here's the passage from which Schwartz draws his allusion:

Then make Charley your father, Biff. You can't do that, can you? I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person. You called him crazy... no, a lot of people think he's lost his... balance. But you don't have to be very smart to know what his trouble is. The man is exhausted. A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man. He works for a company thirty-six years this March, opens up unheard-of territories to their trademark, and now in his old age they take his salary away.

Are they any worse than his sons? When he brought them business, when he was young, they were glad to see him. But now his old friends, the old buyers that loved him so and always found some order to hand him in a pinch--they're all dead, retired. He used to be able to make six, seven calls a day in Boston. Now he takes his valises out of the car and puts them back and takes them out again and he's exhausted. Instead of walking he talks now. He drives seven hundred miles, and when he gets there no one knows him anymore, no one welcomes him. And what goes through a man's mind, driving seven hundred miles home without having earned a cent? Why shouldn't he talk to himself? Why? When he has to go to Charley and borrow fifty dollars a week and pretend to me that it's his pay? How long can that go on? How long? You see what I'm sitting here and waiting for? And you tell me he has no character? The man who never worked a day but for your benefit? When does he get the medal for that?

The passage is uncanny in its relevance to teaching, individual teachers, and the expertise we possess. Attention must be paid, and it must be paid by a public and by a government that doesn't pay attention. It's a bit hypocritical to tell teachers in public schools to follow the example of charter schools (i.e. KIPP) in their fostering of grit. It's unfair to cast public teachers by the wayside and embrace those schools that get to choose the students they want to teach.

Our profession has been allowed to fall into disrespect by the very people who generally turn to us to solve society's problems, and attention must be paid. Schwartz writes that we can't depend on the marketplace to foster grit:

"It would be foolish to expect commercial sources to force complexity on an unwilling public." 

Really? This is a huge part of the problem, and attention must be paid. We in education are exhausted. We are tired of being told that society's problems are ours alone to solve. Attention must be paid. The public, indeed, has an attention deficit problem, and it didn't originate in schools nor can schools solve it alone. Until Schwartz and others pay attention to that, until they become mindful of that, teachers will be able to do little to divert students' attention to gritting it out in the classroom the way they often do in sporting arenas.


  1. I've often felt that there is a problem with identifying the cause vs the result. Is it that working hard is what makes people successful? Or is it that people who are successful are more willing to take credit for the events of their life, while people who have been less successful don't want to be blamed?

    1. Good questions, Clix. Of course, circumstances play a part in success and failure, but hard work is more likely to result in success while rationalizing can do much harm to one's chances of experiencing success. I'm not thinking monetarily but am thinking about the commitment one needs for learning to occur.

    2. Saw this ( just this morning. I think hard work is important, but we also need to emphasize that luck ALSO plays a factor, and encourage students to be prepared to make use of unexpected opportunities.