Translation: To the best of my knowledge, paying attention is missing in action. Need I say more?
I don’t need to say more about the problem, so let’s get right into what to do. Many thanks to Dan Willingham for drawing attention to, as he put it, “the 21st century skill students really lack”:
It’s unlikely that they are incapable of paying attention, but rather that they are quick to deem things not worth the effort.
We might wonder if patience would not come easier to a student who had had the experience of sustaining attention in the face of boredom, and then later finding that patience was rewarded….
Students today have so many options that being mildly bored can be successfully avoided most of the time.
Most students are able to avoid being mildly bored, but the result may be that they become boring people. I doubt it is possible to learn a great deal about the world—to make “the inside of your head … an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”—without enduring some boredom. Many great books pull you in slowly—it’s only after 50 or so pages that you’re hooked. Likewise, many academic subjects only become fascinating when you’re far enough in for contradictory details to emerge and for questions that once seemed clear to become debatable. I was one of those teenagers who thought that learning about raindrops as prisms would ruin the rainbow. It didn’t. The textbook diagram was dry, but the next rainbow was more vibrant. Suddenly, I was glad that I had diligently studied that textbook, not merely crammed for the test.
Paying attention and then being unexpectedly rewarded for it is an experience many of us have had—but we can’t just assume all students will be so fortunate. As Willingham wrote, “If we are concerned that students today are too quick to allow their attention to be yanked to the brightest object (or to willfully redirect it once their very low threshold of boredom is surpassed), we need to consider ways that we can bring home to them the potential reward of sustained attention.”
Willingham mentioned a Harvard art professor, Jennifer Roberts, who “asks her students to select a painting from a Boston museum, on which they are to write an in-depth research paper. Then the student must go the museum and study the painting. For three hours.”
Some boredom is assured, but would be painting be ruined or enhanced? Roberts explains that it is enhanced as students see more details. Willingham notes that students’ patience is rewarded, revealing the value of persisting and paying attention.
I think there is one more element here—the quality of the work being studied. Students were not to spend three hours gazing upon any painting; it had to be one in a Boston museum. This assures that they are looking at the original work, and that the work itself has been judged by several experts to be worthy of preservation.
We should indeed encourage students to pay attention—and we must also hold ourselves accountable for giving them things worthy of their attention.
That said, how do we help more students learn to value paying attention and persisting through initial boredom? I hope Willingham will answer that question with rigorous research. Meanwhile, I’ll offer a common sense approach: start early and build slowly.
In Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA)—a knowledge-building reading, writing, speaking, and listening program for preschool through third grade—teachers slowly develop students’ ability to pay attention by reading aloud. Importantly, the read-alouds start short and grow longer over the course of the school year and across school years. The read-alouds also provide information worth learning and are grouped by domain so that students have time to grasp concepts and acquire new vocabulary. Even better, the domains themselves are carefully sequenced, with early studies of topics like plants and farms providing a foundation for later studies of pilgrims and ecology. Squirmy young children quickly grow into attentive students as they realize that these fiction and nonfiction read-alouds contain interesting stories and answer questions about the world.
Fitzhugh is the founder of the Concord Review, a scholarly history journal with well-researched essays by high school students. Fitzhugh often laments that the traditional history term paper is quickly becoming a relic. He hopes to reinstate the term paper through his Page Per Year Plan:
Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.
A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper, ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with sources, and so on, until each senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper, with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic.
This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she may also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This should reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.
I believe there’s one more benefit: sustained attention. Year by year, students would have to put forth a little more effort, take a little more time, and grasp a little bit more deeply the learning that results from researching and writing about a topic. I’d bet that those Harvard students who dutifully studied a painting for three hours (as well as wrote a research paper on it) were prepared for the task with similarly rigorous studies throughout their K – 12 years.
Today’s typical 12th grader would likely struggle to write a 12-page history paper. YKWIM? (Translation: You know what I mean?) But a 12th grader who had already written 11 other history papers would likely succeed beautifully. Fitzhugh has been touting his Page Per Year Plan for more than a decade. Maybe it’s time we listened.
NVNG! (Translation: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!)