The Honour of Attention

Gardner Campbell’s post stirred my thoughts on attention. Linda Stone coined the almost intuitive “yeah, that’s it!” term “continuous partial attention”. While we might not always see it as such, our attention is limited and how we use it has notable consequences. For example, I am not a goal setter, nor do my “to do lists” embody an organized spirit. I find myself frequently distracted from perhaps more worthy pursuits as I engage in fragmented activities, hoping in the depths of my sub-conscious mind that these disjointed pieces will one day snap into place and form a holistic (advanced?) understanding.
This disjointedness of thought is reflected in my conversations with others. I frequently retreat to interior considerations as comments made by family and friends trigger a side-journey of reflection. When dialoguing with others at conferences, each statement provided by others seems to serve as a conversational hyperlink into contextually unrelated, but personally important, thought streams. Quite simply, I’m distracted and wish I could slow the world down frequently so I can more fully pursue the conversational side-journeys, tracing ideas and connecting them with what I already know into a new synthesis. But, the ease of distraction, while valuable for being able to briefly explore and connect ideas with weak links, can be seen as rude.
This evening, while speaking on the phone to my dad, I found my attention gallivanting to all kinds of peripheral concerns. Should I have phrased the concept of networks differently in that last paper? What about this Edmodo thing? Oh, wow, that relates to Plotinus’ notion of Nous. I wonder why I’m not more creative? I really should start working with images more in my blogs. Why hasn’t that person replied to my email? And on and on. Then, almost outside of my own consciousness, but in keeping with the well worn path of social ritual I heard myself ending the phone conversation. And I was shocked. An entire conversation had essentially passed me by while I permitted myself to explore personal interests rather than to focus on what was being shared by a family member.
A few thoughts (heh) arose from this conversation. First, giving attention to others is a sign of respect. It is an act of getting out of ourselves, our thoughts, our concerns, and becoming willing to receive the perspectives, opinions, and ideas of others.
Second, technology can make this more difficult. I can surround myself (in Twitter, Google Reader) with people who share my interests. I end up needing to pay less attention because my own thoughts already overlap with those I’m reading or listening to online.
Third, while continuous partial attention is a part of who we are and who we have been for centuries, it seems to be much easier today to not pay attention to people around us. When is the last time you’ve had a difficult conversation (difficult defined as one where you needed to focus on what others were saying because world-views/opinions were so far removed from your own that you had to ramp up cognitive capacity to follow)? I personally spend the majority of my day being a one-dimensional person. My focus is fairly consistently on educational technology. Reading blogs, journal articles, listening to podcasts, etc .all centre on that particular focus. When engaged in conversations outside of that space, my thoughts begin to exhibit addictive withdrawal traits (jonesing for ed tech?).
Finally, attention plays different roles in different contexts. In fields where I am well versed, attention can be partial and distributed, as it allows me to quickly explore different ideas. However, when interacting in a field where I am not well versed, or when talking with others, this can be a challenge. Fragmented attention can be seen as a sign of lack of interest…and can result in missing key points of information. I’m just not very consistent at using my attention appropriately in varying contexts.
All of which, as I continue to seek ways to absolve myself of the guilt of being a distracted listener when people are not talking about things that I already predispositional interest in, comes down to the importance of developing habits of respecting and honouring (yes, I’ll use that outdated term) other people. Thoughtful and intentional attention directed at understanding others – even those not in my field – forms the basis of weak ties to worlds beyond my own (”Please, help George become a multi-faceted human being…send weak ties…”). Weak ties are connections that bridge worlds. Serendipity, an underestimated value in learning – occurs in those moments where we bring together two or more ideas that appear to not have direct relation. The smashing together of varying, unrelated, and contradictory ideas forms the basis of innovation. Purposeful attention serves not only to honour those people around me (virtual and physical), but also to aid in my personal growth and learning. Deep understanding, after all, is a function of ongoing, sustained focus and attention on a particular field or discipline (see Biggs Solo Taxonomy). “Time on task” is a key point of value in learning and often a critical distinction between those learners that succeed and those that don’t.
Is paying attention (appropriate to the context) a skill we ought to be teaching learners? Something we (ok, I) ought to be more vigilant in addressing in ourselves (myself)?

7 Responses to “The Honour of Attention”

  1. Laura says:

    Actually, I often see/read/hear things that I disagree with. part of it is that my brother is very different from me. Part of it is that I seek out diverse views, especially politically. Like it or not, we’re all in this world together and it goes much more easily if you can see things from another’s point of view. You don’t have to agree, but the seeing helps a lot. I think it also helps us to build those cognitive links. We need to exercise pathways equally so that they grow normallyl, not in a disjointed fashion.

  2. Reggie says:

    I’ve been accused (especially by my wife) of somewhat being the opposite; I tend to focus on one thing to the detriment of peripheral tasks (she thinks I deliberately do this when those tasks pertain to her).
    I look at Twitter/Reader and the rest as giving me access to contradictory ideas themselves. Prior to jumping on Twitter, I had a narrower focus on educational technology. Twitter has allowed me to connect to ideas and resources that I’d never found.
    Also, I choose to use these tools to bring in information that hopefully broadens my interests and knowledge. While I’m an educational technologist, I also use tools to connect to interest outside of that area.
    I do feel though that the ability to constantly immerse one’s self in Twitter/Reader continually at all hours of the day can be negative. When writing, reading or socializing, often I just turn it all off. Twittering when one’s wife is talking to you is bad for your health in so many ways.

  3. Gardner says:

    A wonderful post.
    Your ideas of weak ties, juxtaposition, and honour are very insightful.
    I have some thoughts in response, having to do with some or all of the following (I’ll get ‘em down real quick before the moment passes):
    1. Attention is honour. I think the word is right on. What are we choosing to honour with our attention? What is more vital in our lives than human attention?
    2. I think we need all sorts of attention. Continuous partial attention, rapid horizon-scanning attention, deeply focused attention. We need attention calisthenics that strengthen us in all kinds of attention. Our eyeballs have lenses and irises to let us see clearly in varying conditions. We need good lenses and irises (or pupils–I forget which is the agent of dilation/contraction) for our attention as well.
    3. When we pay attention, we let a thing happen to us, and cooperate with its action upon us. That’s why careful listening is never passive. It’s very hard for my students to pay close attention in thi sense, opening and stilling and focusing themselves to receive and consider. This is why “interactivity” can ring so hollow in my own ears as a panacea for pedagogical improvement. Some “interactivity” merely reinforces the casual chatter that can shut out a world rather than let it in.
    Those are a few thoughts. Nothing definitive there, but at least a start in thinking through the questions you’ve raised and the ideas you’ve articulated. Thanks for the inspiration. There’s something deeply felt in your post here that gets me mulling hard.

  4. Garry McNeilly says:

    YES! We should have Attention 101 at every high school on the planet. For many years now I have been advocating this as adolescent students in general gradually lose the ability to really listen and engage in communicative dialog. It’s as if they have a predisposed notion of not understanding and are numb to any attempts by others to effectively communicate. When I say communicate I mean the student hears and understands. The ability to engage in attentive dialog is definitely a skill and an important one that should be part of the curriculum.
    Foe example, yesterday in a maths lesson I said to one of my 14 yr old students who had eyes wide open looking at me, “Your Gross income is $50000. What did I just say?” He said “I have $30000.” Half the class that were attentive laughed and the rest accepted what he said because they were not. I just banged my head on the whiteboard and started to cry.

  5. Chris L says:

    Something I remind myself of sometimes (and probably should more) is that almost all of the people in the world that I REALLY admire, who are doing the things I consider great– in work, in art, in living– don’t have a thing to do with social networks, educational technology, or even much technology at all outside of what might be needed to get a few tasks done here and there. And in the not-so-distance past, my heroes had no choice but to forego all of that.
    I suspect, at some times more than others and it’s particularly strong right now, that I’ve chosen this highly mediated, connected path in lieu of really reaching to do something significant. It doesn’t matter whether I *could* do something more or not, what matters is that the element of my choice might well be to settle into something that is a little more comfortable in the ways that can hurt the most.

  6. Lisa Neal says:

    It seems to be that flow should be part of a discussion about attention – where do you see it fitting in?

  7. Cindy Seibel says:

    I like the concepts you have presented. I’m working on a somewhat similar model – different in that it looks at the body of work through a technology planning filter and different in that its focus is K-12 learning. But similar in that it is situated in this period of significant (and messy) transition and attempts to bridge from current schooling models to a new world driven by the technological permeation of our lives.
    Working with children rather than adults does introduce some different factors, including addressing age appropriateness, embracing the basics of critical thinking and inquiry, and encouraging digital citizenship. Getting those latter concepts correct may help to answer your second issue – if learners enter post-secondary having already lived and coped in this new world, they will arrive much better prepared.
    If my brainstorming and other’s subsequent comments in the K-12 space aids your thinking as your’s has mine, I would welcome your comments on the evolving model.