Paying attention is something we ask students to do every day. But is it something we distracted-book-cover-newand our students can totally control?

Maggie Johnson suggests perhaps not. Paying attention, she says, is a cognitive activity with “deep neurobiological roots.” And she says that

this complex faculty is being woefully undermined by how we’re living.

Wired.com interviewed Johnson about her recent book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. In Distracted, Jackson claims that

a never-ending stream of phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, text messages and tweets is part of an institutionalized culture of interruption, and makes it hard to concentrate and think creatively.

Scientists are now claiming that “attention” is its own organ system and that there are specialized networks within the brain carrying out different functions.

Johnson lists three types of attention:

  • The first she calls orienting – “the flashlight of your mind,” allowing us to focus on something new in our environment
  • The second covers a spectrum of different response states – “from sleepiness to complete alertness”
  • The third type is executive attention – “This lets us move us beyond our impulsive selves, to plan for the future and understand abstraction.”

What I found interesting is that Johnson claims the brain is designed to be interrupted. We literally get an adrenalin rush when we notice new stimuli

our body actually rewards us for paying attention to the new. So in this very fast-paced world, it’s easy and tempting to always react to the new thing.

But this is not necessarily a good thing. Distractions – what Johnson calls “portable escapism and mediated fantasy” – and interruptions that happen when we multitask can lead us away from periods of reflection. This is turn, Johnson suggests, limits our ability to solve problems, think clearly and relate to ideas and others.

An earlier book by Farhad Manjoo, True Enough, says that current technology and media have created an environment which makes it easy for us to ignore the truth and hear only what we want to hear. Johnson would probably agree.

If we forget how to use our powers of deep focus, we’ll depend more on black-and-white thinking, on surface ideas, on surface relationships. That breeds a tremendous potential for tyranny and misunderstanding.

During the interview, Johnson also talked a bit about how and when the different attention networks develop. And, that’s right, much of the development – especially executive attention – occurs during grades 4-12.

Mmmmm . . . so what to make of this new research?

Is there a difference between being busy and being productive?

How should we as educators react when we’re being told that we should incorporate more technology into instruction? Is that just more “mediated fantasy” and interruptions in the lives of our students? What does the balancing act look like?

You can probably tell that I’m a bit conflicted here. I understand the power of new tools to aid instruction but Johnson seems to be making some sense.

Perhaps something Johnson says during her interview can help

In our country, stillness and reflection are not especially valued in the workplace. The image of success is the frenetic multitasker who doesn’t have time and is constantly interrupted. By striving towards this model of inattention, we’re doing ourselves a tremendous injustice.

One of the strategies that we must always build into our instruction is the chance for kids to reflect and to share those reflections. Metacognition is a powerful tool that should constantly incorporate into our classrooms.

We need to be careful about urging our students to get the right answer as quickly as possible and should instead encourage them to think through problems, even allowing them the freedom to screw up once in a while. Building a little bit of failure into the system now and then – forcing kids to rethink and redo – may not be such a bad thing.

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(Okay . . . be honest. How many times did you check email or Plurk or read your Twitter feed in the last five minutes?)