I was reading the Guardian yesterday and came across a short interview with the singer Sheryl Crow during which she responded to the question ‘what have you sacrificed for your art?’ with the answer “my love life. I think whatever you give your attention to is what thrives.” And this chimed in with a topic I’ve been working with for some time, namely what I have called ‘the force of focus’ (in contrast to multi-tasking, for example). And today, once again, I have been working with teachers in Antwerp (Belgium), trying to pin down what students should give their attention to and how to make sure it has an impact.
But before we go on, and in case you haven’t listened to Sheryl Crow before, here she is singing an old (but to my mind beautiful) song called ‘The first cut is the deepest’.
What you give your attention to is what thrives? So the real task of a teacher, perhaps, is to direct the students’ attention so that this will help them (in this case their language) thrive. And let’s be clear, if you let your attention wander – and if there is too much distraction – then nothing thrives. At least that’s what William James wrote in 1890 in his Principles of Psychology. He said:
“Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.”
So focusing matters in language study and language practice, much as, perhaps, musicians who practise need to concentrate, be analytic, take small passages and work them through rather than noodling around. Or, as Anders Ericsson says “If you’re not practicing deliberately -whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill – you might as well not practice at all”
What then are the best ways of getting students to direct attention? Do ‘old’ techniques such as PPP (presentation, practice, production) do the trick? Or do we need more ‘heart’ involved? More creativity perhaps? More personal involvement? But if we have real buy-in (emotionally) might that distract our students from the attention that they should be giving to language analysis (that’s what Sheryl Crow, the other way round, seems to be suggesting!) If, for example, we have students involved in communicative activities, all fired up with tasks etc, then the attention they should be giving to exactly how the language works may be diverted elsewhere.
And one last crack at this conundrum. In his 2013 book ‘Focus: the Hidden Driver of Excellence’ (Bloomsbury), Daniel Goldman quotes Albert Einstein who said that “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is its faithful student. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” I have been pondering this for days now. Because the challenge is how to get students to use their rational mind when analysing language (that’s the focusing part, and the attention that may help their language learning thrive) whilst at the same time using their sacred gifts – because surely that’s a good idea too, isn’t it? How on earth do you do that?