Attention must be paid

Instead of catering to short attention spans, schools should teach students to pay attention, writes Benjamin Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor, in Slate.

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.

Maintaining attention is a skill that can be learned, he argues. Students need to exercise their “attention muscle” to strengthen it.

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.

Young people raised on brief, simplified info-bits won’t realize what they’re missing, Schwartz believes. “Before we know it, the complexity and subtlety of the world we inhabit will be invisible to us when we try to make sense of what is going on around us.”

“In the age of information overload, no one has time, so everything has to be short,” writes Anya Kamenetz on Hechinger’s Digital/Edu blog.

 Tl;dr is an abbreviation used often online, in forums like Reddit, as a way of commenting on and dismissing someone else’s rant, diatribe, or impassioned outpouring. It stands for “too long; didn’t read.”

Articles are shortened to lists. Blogs are shortened to Tweets. And, Schwartz notes, with MOOCs the 45-minute college lecture–his own cherished medium–is being shortened to a series of five to eight- minute long video chunks interspersed with comprehension questions.

Kamenetz sees the “pithy, attention-grabbing intellectual style” as a sign of a new power dynamic.  “Many people have something to say.” In the traditional classroom, “traditional professors, by virtue of their traditional power, claim the droit du seigneur to bore the bejeezus out of everyone by droning on with no editing whatsoever.” On the Internet, no one has to listen to anyone else.

Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?”

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Comments

  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Hmmm….

    … what was that?

  2. …Attention spans haven’t diminished, she believes. “It’s just that there’s so much more to pay attention to, and to contribute to as well. And isn’t this a better pedagogical model for encouraging people to grapple with complexity?” …

    Not necessarily. There’s way more to pay attention to at the all you can eat buffet. But I don’t go there if I want healthy or a gourmet meal. There’s far too much dreck out there and it’s consuming attention slices that could be better spent elsewhere.

    I mean, look at the bounty of high quality programming that is cable TV in the fiber optic age.

    Michael put it better though…

    • Her praise of comments is amusing. I can only conclude she’s never read a long comment thread (tl;dr, after all!). Long comment threads frequently devolve into insult and true drivel, especially on Slate and The Atlantic. I think that’s why so many sites have stopped allowing comments; it’s not worth anyone’s time to referee. IF it’s a conversation, it’s a conversation between a drunk and a conspiracy theorist.

  3. Ann in L.A. says:

    The question isn’t whether we should, the question is: How?