Republic of Mathematics blog

Focus and intention

Posted by: Gary Ernest Davis on: January 12, 2010

One of the reasons I talk a lot less in class than I used to is because, in my experience, my students do not have good listening skills.

The main reason I talk less is because I am listening more – listening to student concerns, watching for the creased brow, the frown, as another student explains an answer; listening for the hesitancy as a student asks a question; watching for signs that student attention has wandered.

Sometimes student attention wanders so badly that even after I have projected the course Web page onto the class overhead projector, got all students to log into that site on their computers (one computer to two students) and carefully talked through the details on a Web page, I will still get a student asking something like : “When is the first test?” – a matter we dealt with at length only 2 minutes ago!



As adults we all know that our attention is not always with a speaker. We attend conferences, staff meetings, and a myriad other meetings and workshops and to be honest, our attention is not always where it should be from the get-go.   Why is that? Are we just grown up fidgets? Do we have actual or residual ADD?  Possibly. But the most common reason is one of intention: we never actually intended to listen fully. And the reason for that is because often at meetings we are simply attending – just being there because we ought to or have to, not because we intended to come to listen and learn.

There is, very roughly, a chain of dependency in our recall of an event: memory depends on attention which depends on intention.

Without intention there is unlikely to be attention, and without attention there is unlikely to be long term memory. A lot of our lives, particularly in larger social settings, we go through life as if asleep, attending, being there and chatting, but not intending to pay attention.

How much harder is it for students in school who are expected to pay attention for the greater part of the school day? Really, how hard is that? To be almost constantly paying attention to every word that every teacher says, to every task that is assigned?  It is nigh on impossible isn’t it?

We all need a break after 20 minutes or so of complete attention to a task. How many middle school high school, college teachers get their students to get about, walk around, chat for 5 minutes, before getting back to another extended period of paying attention, with intent to learn?

What happens instead, is that class times in middle school , high school and college, become increasingly long periods of students suffering teacher talk, or tasks they do not comprehend or the point of which they do not understand  (like multiplying binomials). It can take an effort of iron will to force oneself to intend to learn, to intend to pay attention completely, and to do this class in, class out; day in, day out; week in week out; semester in, semester out; year in year out; decade in decade out.

As a university professor I notice the fresh eager faces in class at the beginning of each semester. And I notice, every semester, despite my best efforts to keep things light and enjoyable, how those faces become bored and tired as mid-semester approaches.  I see so many students attending because they have to, sitting in class not paying attention because they never intended to come to class to learn.

There is an interesting passage in The Go-Giver where the mentor Pindar, is talking to Joe at their first meeting, and he explains: “You get what you expect. … What you focus on is what you get.” To focus on something we have either to be shocked, or surprised, or else we have to intend to focus in it. Intentions really matter.

Spring semester 2010 I would love to ask students each morning what is their intention this hour. But with 32 + students in a class that would take a lot of time and would not really impact those who already did not have an intention to learn because they wouldn’t yet be paying attention to me.

My intent is to have a shocking or surprising things each class. For example in differential equations I will tell them that solving differential equations is trivial, and give them some simple variables separable equations to solve exactly. This, I think, will shock them, because they’ve all heard that differential equations are hard.

This might be enough to get them to pay attention for an hour. Each class  I will have to come up with something newly shocking. Can I do it? Maybe not. But maybe I can do it often enough that I can begin to address the reasons they are in class – their intention as human beings, and as students.

I think a role I have as a teacher is to help my students be very clear about their intentions in class, and very clear when they are, and are not paying attention, and why it is that their attention has wandered, and what they can do to get it back, such as take a bathroom break, get something to eat , or walk around –  anything but engage other students in off-task chit-chat.

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