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?
That is a good question, Jeremy, and one that I wouldn’t know how to answer. A few things come to mind, though.
1. Maybe it depends on age to a certain extent. It’s probably harder for kids and teens who grew up in the so-called digital age to focus on things the way we expect them to. Their attention is much more scattered than ours ever was – or perhaps scattered amid different sorts of distractions. Whether this is a good or bad thing (or neither / both) only time will tell, I suppose. I read a New York Times article last week that argued that to be successful in the 21st century, you need, first and foremost, to develop the ability to focus on one thing at a time.
2. Having said that, it’s much easier for kids and teens to pick up language in a more natural and organic fashion, without paying conscious attention to form (form/forms, whatever). So maybe, in that sense, attention seems to be less of a prerequisite for language development? Young adults and adults, on the other hand, need to be able to attend to language more consciously – exposure alone just won’t cut it. And this is where things begin to get more complicated.
3. How do we get students to focus on what WE want them to focus on? I mean, if we give ten different students the same article and ask them to underline, say, five sentences they found interesting for whatever reason, we’ll end up with dozens and dozens of sentences, I imagine. And this makes me wonder… Even if we choose interesting texts and devise good, manageable noticing activities, what is it that they’ll r e a l l y be paying attention to – the stuff we chose or the stuff that for whatever reason jumped off the page and caught their eyes?
4. Time and time again I’ve found that you can turn something into the focal point of the lesson (though in a slightly less overt fashion) by deliberately getting them to focus on something else – you know, a sort of “aim at X to get to Y” strategy. For example, sometimes students can get all sorts of grammatical help with a structure that’s hidden in a lexical chunk by practicing the chunk. Or it could involve pronunciation too. Last week I taught a student who was obsessing over the pronunciation of “once.” She would ask me to repeat it over and over and wouldn’t stop repeating it herself. So, guess what, the drilling quickly moved from word (once) to phrase (once a week, once a month) and then to sentence (he + third person + once phrase) level. A few minutes later, in a different context, for whatever reason, she started to produce the third person S of those verbs correctly. Maybe Form De-focus is the term (first coined by Keith Johnson?) that’s conceptually closest to the the kinds of “attention manipulation” I’m referring to.
5. Maybe de-focusing also helps the teacher collect more reliable evidence of learning too. About four years ago I remember doing a pronunciation activity with a group of very advanced students who just couldn’t say the word “catholic” correctly (possibly because of Portuguese interference). I had them underline the stressed syllable, did CR/IR, asked them to think of words with the same stress pattern and so on and so forth. Half an hour later, in a completely different activity / context, the word catholic appeared in a text and, guess what, most students mispronounced it. I corrected them again (this time when their attention was focused mostly on something e l s e) and from then on, they started to get it right.
Does that make any sense to you?
First and foremost Luis Otávio, many apologies for coming back so late to answer your comments. I have read through them a number of times, trying to work out what I think (that’s always the way with blogs and discussions about learning, isn’t it…trying to work out what we think). But anyway, I should have answered earlier and for that I am sorry.
I am really fascinated by the examples you give. In a conversation this morning, I was wondering whether getting students to focus – or at least be analytical about language – might be fine for students who are good at being analytical but not necessarily good for the ones who aren’t (forgetting about age variables etc).
Your ‘catholic’ example intrigues me. It’s like, in music practice, the phenomenon that some people describe when they have no opportunity for practice for, say, 2 weeks but when they come back to the piece they had been working they find they are better than when they went away! Well, actually, maybe that’s something else, though the idea of switching the focus button off mate have something to do with it.
An MA student of mine was describing how she learnt the phrase ¡Que te aproveches! – literally ‘that you take advantage of it’, but really ‘have a good time’. She got the phrase because her landlady (in Madrid; she’s American) said it to her every time she left the flat and she finally (after a few times) realised what its function was. But the really interesting thing for me was that she said that the penny really dropped (whoops! British idiom alert!) when she suddenly made a conscious connection between that and something she’d heard in an argument – when someone said ¡Que te calles! (= shut up). She brought the focus, in other words. And the question for me is whether teachers really can engineer the kind of lightbulb moment that this student experienced. Or whether that is ONLY in the hands of the student.
At the same time, I am intrigued by the ‘Marshmallow’ experiment http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment which seemed to suggest that delaying gratification (e.g. being focused) might be the answer – or maybe, in a more modern reading of the results – that strategic thinking might be the key.
All so puzzling! But then it always is….
Well, I might have got the wrong end of the stick here, but allow me to share a couple of thoughts that have sprung to mind.
I personally don’t think that we can truly multi-task and the things we’ve been calling multi-tasking lately are simply a new way for us to do things we used to do, but now using a different medium. For example, as a child, I was perfectly capable to climb up a tree, have a conversation with my friends, and still pay attention to my surroundings. However, if we happened to be climbing up a tree we had never climbed before, or should we be playing hide and seek in an unknown location, we were all pretty quiet at first, until we got used to it and we could resume our chats.
As I grew a bit older, I started learning how to drive – and we drive a stick in Brazil – and guess how often I was unable to do anything else but focus on my driving? The same was true when I still played basketball and I was trying to learn a new move. The difference nowadays is that the virtual world seems to have wowed us a tad more than it should have – but isn’t this what always happens when we make a leap in science?
In my view, as we become more experienced in an activity, we have the need for less effort on the part of our brain. As the activities we carry out on a daily basis become part of our routine, we are then able to perform other little things which do not require you to make an effort to get them done. This is when we are able to “multi-task”. However, if one activity requires us to put a tiny bit of a strain on our brains, we won’t be able to carry out simple things, such as have a conversation about our hometown, ourselves, or even our likes and dislikes. Just try to have a conversation at the same time that you’re trying to find an address in a place you’ve never been to.
But I think I’m preaching to the converted here by saying this, so let me move on to another point. As I see it, learning something is motivating. We all enjoy learning something new – it’s part of being humans. What will vary is the amount of effort and energy we may be willing to put into this task of learning something new. Students tend to lose sight of their English studies when they don’t see it as profitable, IMHO. For instance, a beginner student who struggles way harder than his or her peers and then realizes that all other classmates are able to understand and speak a lot better than he or she does is likely to label learning English as boring. It’s easier than saying that it is difficult.
Upper-intermediate or advanced learners, on the other hand, might lose the interest to go past what they already know because they believe they can get by with what they already know. By looking into these two situations, I believe the teacher has a major role to play in this lack of interest. By not being able to properly gauge the activities to scaffold learning for all his beginner students, a teacher might not realize that students weren’t particularly ready to learn this or that new bit of language. As a result, students will lose interest because the amount of effort they’ll have to spend to learn what they couldn’t understand is just too much, which then leads them to other more rewarding activities. On the other end, a teacher who fails to challenge students properly end up not showing them that there’s still more to be learnt. Consequently, they don’t feel the need to analyze language extracts and incorporate language items to their knowledge database.
I think we, as humans, tend to listen more to those who also see us as humans. So, when you ask me if we need more ‘heart’, techniques or personal involvement, I am of the opinion that teachers need to be as resourceful as possible. However, I must say it’s pretty hard for me to be able to learn, or be willing to learn, from someone who doesn’t take my opinions into account, or someone I can’t trust. It’s not a matter of one or the other, but, to my mind, one thing clearly complements the other.
How can we answer the questions you put forth? I wish I knew (or there was) a definitive answer to them, As I can’t see any, I can only share my opinions, hear what others have to say, and keep thinking about them. Right now, my opinion is that by establishing rapport with your learners they are much more prone to doing what you ask of them. This makes it easier for you to be resourceful and get them to focus on what you believe that will help them in class. Hopefully, what we’re focussing on in class is on getting them to become more independent in their studies.
Hmm… not sure this answered the question. Feel free to let me know if it’s irrelevant to this discussion in particular! 🙂
I am so so so sorry it’s taken me such a long time to reply to your comments. That doesn’t mean I haven’t appreciated them, though!
I really like your tree-climbing analogy. I think it makes the attention point well; you can only climb trees and have an interesting conversation at the same time if you don’t have to give too much attention to the tree-climbing or, conversely, the conversation. That’s how come people can knit and do other thongs at the same time, but maybe not listen to the radio and read a newspaper at the same time. (That’s also why, I think, teachers at the beginning of their careers find it so difficult to focus on what their students are saying/doing because they have to give so much of their attention to what they are doing! Why I love the sheer freedom of playing in an orchestra because it is impossible at rehearsal to give your attention to anything except the musical activity and that’s bliss!).
Anyway: the whole point, I guess, is not to overload the attention-focusing equipment. So if too much heart goes in, there’s not enough capacity left over to give attention to anything else? Just a thought. Coincidentally I just revisited Scott Thornbury’s post about silence in his A-Z of ELT (http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/s-is-for-silence/) and wonder whether that kind of space is a very good attention-focusser….
I DO think it has something to do with a thoughtful teacher’s ability to fit the challenge to the students – something I took from your comments. But the real mystery, of course, is that the challenge we give our students may not be the challenge they respond to!
Pingback: ETp Live Conference 2014: Brighton | ELT Experiences