TTBOMK, Paying Attention Is MIA. NISM?

by Guest Blogger
May 15th, 2013

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.

Just that happens in Core Knowledge Language Arts and Will Fitzhugh’s Page Per Year Plan.

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!)



  1. Wow, if only I could convince teachers. My daughter’s well regarded schools can’t think outside the 5 paragraph essay.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 15, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

  2. I think there’s some promising research related to mindfulness training and attention that is relevant to education (e.g., Mrazek et al., 2013, Psych Science). One problem may be that students just don’t know HOW to sustain attention, deal with boredom, have patience, etc. Research on mindfulness and related techniques suggests that these skills can be developed with practice, but more research is needed directly testing its effects in the classroom.

    Comment by Logan — May 16, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

  3. Since 1987, I have published 1,066 history research papers by HS students from 46 states and 39 other countries that go way beyond the five-paragraph essay (average 6,000 words). Samples at or write me at for more information. Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — May 16, 2013 @ 2:42 pm

  4. I love the page a day concept. Getting the classroom focus toward this goal might be helped with clickers, where the student’s attention dare not wander.

    Comment by David Coffey — May 17, 2013 @ 10:28 am

  5. See? My attention wandered to clickers. I intended to say Page Per Year.

    Comment by David Coffey — May 17, 2013 @ 10:30 am

  6. sentence per day, then complex sentence, then paragraph,topic sentence, etc. Students with few exceptions do produce pages depending on their age and language abilities if there is motivation, interest,issue/topic that is relevant to their own experience, prior knowledge. Is it a matter of quality or quantity?

    Comment by Nara — May 17, 2013 @ 11:11 am

  7. Nara- students may be able to produce sentences, paragraphs, pages if it is something they have a deep interest in, but it may and in many cases does represent a nearly unreadable mess. Ask the great cadre of community college writing professors out there. The actual process of forming connected ideas that build an arguement with relatively few grammatical mistakes is not something that just happens with writing. There are a lot of smart people out there that cannot do this, one of them is my child. What we realized is that she has learning challenges that make modeling quite difficult. Many children may not have those brain process challenges, but may lack enough words in their vocabulary, context and prior knowledge. Writing really needs both focus and very explicit practice and guidance. In my experience you can’t get either quantity or quality with explict content and writing guidance and practice.

    Comment by DC Parent — May 17, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

  8. A large number of teachers in public schools are not inspired (or even interested) intellectuals. They have master’s degrees in education or teaching instead of the subject matter they teach (from middle school on). How can we expect teachers who aren’t inspired by (or often even interested in) the subjects they are teaching to make the subject anything but a total bore for the students?

    It is essential to connect all of the subject matter that the Core Knowledge curriculum (or any curriculum) presents to students’ lives. Historical documents should be taught as living entities, and teachers need to show how they are relevant to our current culture, now they exemplify age-old, yet still ongoing debates.

    The dull, uninspired teaching of content is what gave all those who disparaged traditional (essentialism, perennialism) teaching ammunition to displace it with progressive, naturalistic philosophies.

    Comment by Jim — May 17, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

  9. In a well-regarded public MS in Houston each week i literacy class students have to turn in 4 reading responses. Since that homework never changes through most of the year, and since they know that the teacher just gives each page a cursory glance, they write to fill the space, and not to show off any critical thinking. It backfires badly.

    When asked to write anything, I am opposed to setting a set-length or number of paragraphs. Giving students areas they must address in the essay works far better than page length.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — May 17, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

  10. […] Alarm bells should begin to go off when one realizes that the same psychologist whose words were used to bolster the credibility of the CKLA premise is the author of the very next article. Either it’s a very small world or there is a shortage of psychologists writing on education issues. A little research revealed that Daniel T. Willingham, frequent contributor to American Educator, is in fact, on the board of Core Knowledge. Small world, indeed. Here we have a nine-page article that appears to be devoted to selling educators on the CKLA curriculum, supported by quotes from Core Knowledge Board member, Daniel T. Willingham. Willingham is in fact the same person who Lisa Hansel, co-author of the article, thanked on the Core Knowledge blog in May of 2013 for these words, “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….” You can read that here. […]

    Pingback by AFT’s American Educator: Voice of the Rank and File or Tool of the Reformers? – @ THE CHALK FACE — June 12, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

While the Core Knowledge Foundation wants to hear from readers of this blog, it reserves the right to not post comments online and to edit them for content and appropriateness.