Attention must be paid to a complex and subtle world & it can be taught and learned!

Attention must be paid! Barry Schwartz

This is a great essay by Barry Schwartz, psychologist and professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College, and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2003) and Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing (2010), among others.

The world is a complex and subtle place of which we are an integral part. In order to be able to understand and improve it, we need to pay sustained attention to it, i.e. we need to think long and hard about it – in short: we need to concentrate.

Alas, there is little doubt that attention keeps diminishing, and too many educators cater to shortening attention spans rather than cultivating sustained attention, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Schwartz’ key premise is that sustained attention is a skill that can be taught and practiced, just like a muscle can be trained to lift heavier weights. He cites research which shows that perseverance – aka grit – ‘is a better predictor of academic success than IQ or SAT scores.’

The practice of honors education as transdisciplinary and transformative global education focused on cultivating global competence to do justice to a complex and interdependent world and to understand and respond to global challenges seeks to cultivate the kind of sustained attention that Schwartz has in mind.

Some key excerpts (with my highlights)

There is no doubt that “diminished attention” is a correct diagnosis of the intellectual temperament of our age. I see it to a greater degree each year even in the students I teach, who are among the very best that our high schools have to offer.

But how to treat it? Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience. What’s the point of having a New York Times article about the U.S. stance toward the Syria that continues on an inside page if nobody is going to turn to the inside page? Even talking about “inside pages” is anachronistic, since more and more people get their news online, with articles that are “up-to-the-minute” but frustrating in their brevity.

By catering to diminished attention, we are making a colossal and unconscionable mistake. The world is a complex and subtle place, and efforts to understand it and improve it must match its complexity and subtlety. We are treating as unalterable a characteristic that can be changed. Yes, there is no point in publishing a long article if no one will read it to the end. The question is, what does it take to get people to read things to the end?

The key point for teachers and principals and parents to realize is that maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.

In other words, the “short-attention” phenomenon is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, we tell ourselves that people can’t maintain attention. Second, we do nothing to nurture their ability to maintain attention. And sure enough, we “discover” that people can’t maintain attention. […]

The world is complex, and it isn’t going to get any simpler. Unless we can create a population that is capable of thinking about complexity in complex ways, it is highly unlikely that the problems of global warming; economic inequality; access to affordable, high-quality health care; or any of the other challenges the U.S. and the rest of the world face will get adequate solutions. Good solutions to any of these problems will be complex, and they will not win support from a population that demands simplicity. Teachers have a responsibility to train complex minds that are suited to a complex world. This is at least as important as teaching young people mathematics, biology, or literature. For teachers, at all levels, attention must be paid to teaching that attention must be paid. [read the entire essay]

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