Attention is a finite resource
Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.
“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.” — New York Times: The Science of Concentration
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. — Annie Dillard
There is a persistent myth that more is better for children — more activities, more educational toys, more experiences, more lessons, more friends — when really, they would be able to extract more learning, more pleasure, and more usefulness out of less.
We distract children constantly. We pepper them with new inputs before they’ve had a chance to digest something they just experienced.
We do this at school, but we also do it at home.
At school, Kindergarten students change “themes” every week or two. This is a strategy for dealing with children’s infamous short attention spans and the school’s need for coverage — cramming as much learning as possible into 40 school weeks. Unfortunately, this forces children to skim around on the top of subjects, learning a few basic and common facts before they are zoomed onto the next thing.
They don’t have the chance to become experts, and they don’t have the opportunity to explore their deepest interests.
If you didn’t already have a short attention span, you would develop one quickly at a typical elementary school, where your daily life is a chaotic “twelve countries in ten days” richochet from science experiment to hands-on activity to field trip to computer lab.
At home, there is the temptation to make up for what homeschooled kids are “missing” (I would say, like Peter did in Office Space, “I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob”) by packing the schedule chock full of educational and life experiences. Art class! Museum trip! Petting zoo! Play group! There is also the suspicion that the whole reason we made this homeschooling/unschooling choice was so our kids could experience everything life has to offer, so shouldn’t we be out there, living the dream?
Whew. Learning can be exhausting.
I would argue, as usual, that in this case, less is more.
It would be better to have a single experience and then really take the time to focus on it — talk about it, revisit it, go back again for a deeper look, share it with a friend, tell a family member about it, read about it, write about it, photograph it. This is the essence of project work.
There is no way to do this more meaningful work without making the hard choice of putting some other things aside. You cannot develop deep thinking and learning skills without the opportunity; it requires space and it requires time. Moreover, it requires an attitude — a pervasive family culture that says “There is plenty of time to dig into this; other stuff will wait until you are done.”
If you want your child to do the work of deeper learning — work that not only builds your child’s thinking and learning skills but shows him what meaningful work feels like — then you must allow some activities and interests to take precedence for some amount of time.
For my children, this looks like very long project work — exploring deep interests that are maintained and developed literally over years. You cannot point to a child who is excelling at what he loves and not see that he has been given the opportunity to pursue that deep interest with a good-sized chunk of his time.
For myself, it allows me to prioritize to reach my goals — for instance, being a not-great blogger so I can finish my book!
To accomplish something big, to achieve something valuable, we have to prioritize and give it a large part of our time and focus. If we want our kids to think big thoughts and do big things (as defined by themselves), then we need to encourage them to dig deeply into what interests them.
You may also be interested in:
White Space: “Rather than thinking about quantity — of ideas, of experiences, of work produced — we need to think about quality. Spending more time doing less, so we can do better and appreciate more. A single experience, really and truly had and understood, is more valuable than weeks and weeks of rushed, unconnected, random experiences.”
White Space as a Learning Tool: “How do we begin? By clearing a space. Space in your day to listen and pay attention. Space in your home to support and highlight their work. Space in your life to be quiet and deliberate.”