Attention is a finite resource

Published by Lori Pickert on June 28, 2010 at 03:18 PM

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

I often write about clearing children’s schedules so that they can do longer, deeper, more sustained work in a particular area.

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.


Comment by sarah :: greenclogs on June 29, 2010 at 07:31 PM

Oh man. I was thinking about exactly this while I was up too many times last night. I feel like we're scattered all the time and I committed (again) to reining it in and giving ourselves the space to be and do and think. It needs to start with me, since I'm the worst offender for getting distracted. Thanks for the timely post, as usual.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 29, 2010 at 07:38 PM

so true, sarah -- we set the tone!

Comment by Stacey on June 30, 2010 at 12:18 AM

I really need to hear this today, we've been stretched so thin lately, doing all sorts of things because they sound interesting but I can scarcely remember the last time we spent a day at home working on things we love. I think that you should add to what you said that it is equally important for adults to focus this way to on our passions and projects.

Do we get to hear more about your book?

Comment by Cristina on June 30, 2010 at 02:15 AM

I'm so happy to see a new post from you!

I've said this so many times, and yet I find it is so easy to get caught up in the activities tornado. I am determined to do less next September, and yet sometimes I feel like the only way we can see some of our homeschooling friends is if we allow ourselves to join activities. Vicious cycle.

What I need is a way to get our friend to slow down. :o)

Comment by Lisa on June 30, 2010 at 06:19 PM

Lots of good thoughts here! Now, if my kids could only learn that their cell phone can be turned off and they will continue breathing. Talk about an energy vampire--and a waste of attention!

Comment by Jacinda on June 30, 2010 at 07:49 PM

Yay, you're back! We do seem to have become so concerned with our children not "missing out." At times i have struggled with the singular focus of my eldest. For a large majority of her 7 years she has been only interested in imaginative play! One of the books on your sidebar, "A Child's Work: The Importance of FAntasy Play" by Vivian Gussin Paley was hugely supportive to me with this, as are posts like these. A lot of her deep learning hasn't "looked like" the learning that i had been used to but with time I see this early time spent in deep focus underpins her whole learning journey.

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 30, 2010 at 08:33 PM

stacey, exactly -- that’s what i meant by mentioning my book. if i don’t set aside a big chunk of time for myself, i can’t accomplish anything meaningful either! and you will definitely get to hear more about it in the next few months. :^)

cristina, thank you! :^)

you make a very good point -- i think a lot of hs’ers think of activities as an education/socializing combo -- a two-fer, if you will.

what *i* wish is that everyone would start project groups so they could do long-term, deeper work and still get their group groove on. :^)

lisa, ooh, good luck with that. :^)

hi jacinda! oh, i’m always here, just sometimes i’m very quiet. :^)

i can think of *many* 7yo’s whose favorite learning lens is imaginative play. and it is a powerful way to express ideas and explore concepts. children who are intense dramatic players can turn every new interest into imaginative play -- becoming scientists when they do science experiments, explorers when they study butterflies, and so on. and i think it’s wonderful!

Comment by Naomi on July 1, 2010 at 05:26 PM

This is SO true! And I love using interests of my children to develop new knowledge and skills. Take my sons interest in trains, which he has played with since his first birthday (he is now 3.5). With trains he has learned, or is learning, how to play make belief, safety skills, machinery, making stories, reading picture stories, manners, electronics, patterns, earning money, careers, and lots more I can't think of right now. And all of it came from play, conversation, books, videos, and walks over and down the railroad tracks. Learning can be so much fun if you just follow interests!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 2, 2010 at 01:59 PM

so true, naomi -- that's what project learning is all about. :^)

Comment by Dawn Suzette on July 3, 2010 at 03:09 AM

I got a taste of that packed schedule this last week with Fionna doing a program at the art gallery three days... It was a great program but made me so happy for our days of free exploration and learning. No plans to over schedule us in the fall just because we have a car now! Picking and choosing carefully!
And I AM looking forward to hearing more about your book! Yippie!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 4, 2010 at 01:08 PM

thanks, dawn :^)

i'm always amazed by how fast we can tip over into that over-scheduled feeling. in a way, it's comforting. after this many years, when we feel like we need something new, i realize how easy it is to satisfy that need .. doesn't take much! :^)

Comment by Adrienne on July 9, 2010 at 05:07 PM

Oh Lori, I am so excited to hear that a book is in the works! I have found this blog to be such an inspiration and resource. Hooray!

Comment by Lori Pickert on July 9, 2010 at 05:27 PM

adrienne, thank you! i think a book is the right way to organize everything i want to say .. with concrete examples and strategies. :^)

your comments makes my day — thank you again! :^)

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