Attention Cover Image

Paying Attention is an Achievement

KellerMind Brain Education Science, Neuroscience, Parenting 1 Comment

Pay Attention – Be Astonished – Tell About it

“Within the human cognitive system, attention is a precious, limited resource.  So as designers of learning experiences, we should also think of ourselves as stewards of students’ limited store of attention.”

Dr Michelle Miller’s – Minds Online

Dr Miller is a Professor of Psychological Science. She argues that teachers need to be stewards of a very precious resource – attention.  It is so precious that we even ask people to “pay” for it. Attention has always been a problem with humans. In Ancient times, 300BC, Aristotle was deeply concerned about the distraction caused by the flute.  

“People who are passionately devoted to the flute are unable to pay attention to arguments if they hear someone playing a flute, since they enjoy the flute-playing more than the activity that presently occupies them.”  

In 1714 Isaac Watts, the prolific English Christian hymn writer and minister who was accredited with writing over 750 hymns – many still sung today, was very perturbed by the opening of the coffee shops.  The rapid development of the coffee houses, often referred to as the “penny universities”, where for a penny, you could get a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, created a space to discuss the events of the time.  Because alcohol was not sold, the coffee shop was preferred over the alehouse as a place to discuss various topics.   

In the book, The Improvement of the Mind (1741), Watts wrote:

“Don’t chuse your constant Place of Study by ….. the most various and entertaining Scenes … [A] variety of Objects which strike the Eye or the Ear, especially while they are every in motion or often changing, have a natural and powerful tendency to steal away the Mind too often from its steady Pursuit of any Subject which we contemplate: and thereby the Soul gets a Habit …. of trifling and wandering.”  For Watts, the coffee shop was a place where the attention was “stolen”.

Isaac Watts – English Christian Hymn Writer and Minister

And so the trifling and wandering minds continue to stay with us.  In 1907, the Punch magazine declared the despair about the forecast for 1907 by reporting about the prospect of a scene in Hyde Park where people may be sitting under a tree engaging with a wireless telegraph and not communicating with each other.  Their attention would be distracted.

Development of Wireless Telegraph - Scene in Hyde Park

“These two figures are not communicating with one another.  The lady is receiving an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.

Nicholas Carr - The Shallows

This anxiety of being distracted was extended into the 21st century by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains.  Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves by trading away the seriousness of attention.  His argument is not that much different from Socrates who lamented the invention of books which would create forgetfulness in the soul.  Instead of remembering for ourselves, new readers of books will blindly trust external written characters.  For Socrates – the library was ruining the mind.

So, perhaps it is accurate to say – that the human being is a Distracted Being and it is about time, as we find ourselves well into the 21st century that we stop the nonsense and accept that our brains are designed to be distracted.

Why are we distracted?

Guo in 2014 showed that only 20% of students will watch a 40 minute video for 12-40 minutes.  The rest lose interest.

Student Engagement with Streaming Videos

Perhaps one reason is that there is a huge pull towards novelty.  It has been well researched that the human brain loves novelty.  It was the novelty that originally drove us to forage for food for our survival and today it drives us to forage for new information.

The brain loves novelty.  In a research paper published in 2006 by Nico Bunzeck and Emrah Duzel, they showed that when the brain is shown a series of typical images like landscapes, faces and animals and an oddball photo is thrown in amid the other, the pleasure centre in the midbrain lights up and produces the reward drug dopamine.  

In today’s world of schooling, a classroom devoid of novelty is a useless learning space.  It is  novelty that cements learning.  The reward drug keeps us engaged and excited to learn.  The rest of the world has already caught onto this science – except most schools.  

Gavin Keller – Keller Education
Hooked by Nir Eyal

In his book, Hooked – Nir Eyal, explains what is going on in our brains.  Why do we check our Instagram every morning or run through our Facebook regularly.  The psychology underpinning this behaviour is interesting.  The HOOK model associates people’s emotions and routines with a product.  It is these connections that draw people back and this saves companies money on advertising.  The HOOK becomes a habit – and habits are difficult to break.

This message is powerful for educators.  Thinking has to become habit forming because habit forming behaviours have a way of making their way into everything we do.  If we can build sufficient novelty in our classroom so that the experience is rewarding, the brain will have a desire to go back.

The Fogg Behaviour Model - Adapted by Keller Education
The Fogg Behaviour Model
(Adapted by Keller Education)

The Fogg Behaviour Model is worth considering.  Dr BJ Fogg from Stanford University founded the Behaviour Design Lab.  There are three Principal elements in his model ie: Motivation , Ability and Triggers.  The equation is therefore BEHAVIOUR = Motivation (Core Motivators), Ability (simplicity Factors) and Triggers.  If you go to his website at you can watch a few videos that explain how simplicity (easy to do) and motivation with the correct triggers pushes us onto the action line.

Nir Eyal makes use of a Four Step Process which includes the essence of the Fogg Behaviour Model.  The model needs to be repeated often.

Step One: The Trigger

There needs to be an external event that encourages the student to become engaged.  Our theme this year in the Keller Partnership is Engage the World – to Change the World.  Those words were intentionally chosen.  The trigger needs to be something that is relevant and engaging.  When a theme, topic or a concept drives the trigger, students attention is hooked. Interestingly, Nir explains that a trigger is not good enough on its own.  A trigger requires a motivation to engage with the product or content and the capability to do so.  This is where educators lose the message.  The brain always draws on previous memory.  New content has to latch onto previous knowledge so that the brain recognises the trigger as something that it can do easily.   Once it feels capable and sufficient motivation is present, it moves to step two.

Step Two: The Action 

The Action – The action refers to relevance.  Once a student has been hooked by the engaging event, the educator now needs to consider ways of moving the student into deeper considerations of the topic, but there must be  a sense of achievement and reward.

Step Three: The Reward

Novelty produces dopamine – the pleasure drug and because of the pleasure, the brain will desire to return for a similar experience.  For too long classrooms have been stripped of intrinsic reward for all.  The reward should be directly linked to the trigger that engaged the student initially.  The Essential Question that HOOKED the student initially must be able to be answered – and this must deliver a sense of reward.

Step Four: The Investment

The student would have invested her thinking into this relevant and engaging event.  Good investments produce benefits.  The school experience must be a worthwhile experience.

This model is a cycle.  It is a continuous circle of finding a trigger to engage the student, designing action  to make the experience relevant, providing reward that produces dopamine to ensure a habitual return and making an INVESTMENT in future thinkers.

It is not the flutes, coffee shops, telegraphs or smartphones that are causing us to be distracted.  We are simply distracted as humans and it is time for educators to recognise the reality.

Attention is an achievement and it is not effortless

Message for Teachers and Parents…

Attention Matters

  1. The human brain is easily distracted
  2. Current technology intensifies a pre-existing condition
  3. Attention is vital – so we have to cultivate it intentionally and deliberately.

If attention matters then teachers need to take a long hard look at how good they are at Hooking in their students rather than just telling them how important it is to pay attention.  

“We need to think of paying attention as an achievement, something that you’re able to do (ie. not that you do effortlessly…) Multiple steps are needed to ensure that you end up aware of the stimuli you’re interested in, and not pulled off track by irrelevant inputs.

Daniel Reisberg – From this Book, Cognition


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