Attention and Working Memory

I really enjoyed a series of blog posts I recently discovered summarizing how cognitive science can be applied to education. The section on attention in particular caught my eye. It’s worth noting that attention doesn’t just mean students are sitting up straight and looking at the front of the room. Instead, attention is about thinking. It’s about asking ourselves what students are thinking about, and how we can influence that thinking.

The last few years have seen a movement towards the discussion of “non-cognitive skills.”  But what these really get at are ways into attention:
  • Motivation is really about the voluntary direction of attention.  When we are motivated to do something, we pursue it more often; we give it more attention.  
  • Similarly, Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets–whether we believe our intelligence is fixed, or whether we think intelligence is malleable–her research really explores whether we sustain our attention in the face of adversity.  If we have a growth mindset, we believe that our work improves with effort, and so we direct our attention to it repeatedly.
  • Roy Baumeister’s research on willpower explores the factors that influence whether we sustain attention.  Our attention and resolve are limited, but we can exercise and adjust the factors that marshall our limited attention.
  • And out of Stanford, Clifford Nass’ research on multitasking (and our inability to do it) further informs how we channel, and lose, attention.
In all these–motivation, mindsets, willpower, and multi-tasking–we find we are really talking about attention, and that exploring these “non-cognitive skills” is really another way to understand how and why people direct their attention–or not.

I really like this interpretation of a number of “pop psychology” publications that are popular with educators. I want to add my own spin.

I think of attention in terms of working memory. We can only hold a few ideas in the mind at one time. The research cited above provides a useful window into whether students direct and sustain attention on what we want them to pay attention to in class. While creating environments where students direct and sustain their attention in school is important, perhaps more important is what they are paying attention to.

I see two more important questions, building off of the ideas above:

  • Is attention focused on the right stuff?
  • Is attention overwhelmed to the point that it’s hard to learn?

As I have grown as a teacher, I am better able to ask myself the question, “What are my students thinking about right now?” Motivation, mindset, willpower, and multitasking are one useful lens here. But a student who is effectively paying attention may still only be paying attention to surface features of the problem rather than its deeper structure, or to a calculation without considering why that tool is the appropriate choice in that situation. It’s not just whether a student pays attention; memory is the residue of thought, and what students think about is what they will learn. The more I am able to take students’ perspectives, the better I can design learning experiences that get their attention focused on the right stuff, the essential mathematics that I want them to learn, rather than surface features that fall short of my goals. Building this knowledge means pulling the right ideas into working memory, connecting them to larger ideas students already know, and making sure attention is laser focused on that thinking.

At the same time, even when student attention is focused on the right stuff, if the reasoning they are doing overwhelms their working memory, it’s unlikely that anything will be retained. Here, attention can be all in the right place, but there’s too much to pay attention to, and students lose the forest for the trees. The challenge of figuring out what they are trying to figure out prevents opportunities to step back, take a larger perspective, and consider how what they are doing is connected with other things they have learned and consider how they might use it in the future.

These constraints on attention provide some useful questions to ask. Are students paying attention? If not, how can I facilitate an environment that helps them direct and sustain attention? Are students paying attention to the right stuff? If not, how can I design activities that will help them do so? Are students overwhelmed by the demands on their attention? If they are, how can I reduce the cognitive load of the activity to help them learn effectively?

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