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The seesaw of attention
Q: Can not paying attention be good for learning?
If you have been teaching for a number of years, one of the great delights is to see your former students—now grown up—come back to tell you how they've turned out. It's always wonderful to hear from students who succeed, and sometimes students surprise us. A student who may have done very poorly while in your class, once grown up may have gone on to achieve great things.
But how does this happen? Performance in school is supposed to predict and facilitate performance later in life. Why then do some of those who perform so poorly in school nevertheless do well later? The answers to such questions are complex and may have something to do with the difference between "school science" and "real science" that Rosalind Driver talked about earlier. Perhaps aspects of performance important in real life are not being emphasized or measured in school, and some students do well later in life because these different forms of learning are emphasized and valued in their chosen careers.
People with neurological learning impairments can be among those who come back and surprise the teacher. People with autism spectrum disorders, dyslexia, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle tremendously in school, but sometimes do well later in life. For example, the animal researcher and author, Dr. Temple Grandin, attributes much of her success to her autism, which has given her the ability to imagine the world from the perspective of an animal. She uses these insights to understand animal behavior. John Elder Robison, an expert in audio and electronics who never graduated from high school, links his strong interests in electronics to his Asperger's syndrome, and this has led him to become successful in his career despite doing poorly in school. Others, such as the education researcher Dr. L. Todd Rose, who struggled with ADHD as a child and never completed high school, nevertheless earned a PhD from Harvard, and achieved many important accomplishments in the field of education.
Among those with dyslexia, it has long been noted that many people perform well in visually intensive careers despite the fact that they have considerable difficulty with reading and writing. One study showed that people with dyslexia are overrepresented in art schools, and another showed a similar overrepresentation among business entrepreneurs. Certainly, there are numerous examples of accomplished people with dyslexia who struggled in school and yet achieved recognition later in life. These include artists such as Chuck Close, writers such as John Irving, and Nobel Prize-winning scientists such as Carol W. Greider and Baruj Benacerraf, all of whom achieved success in their careers despite the fact that they struggled in school.
Such examples reiterate the need for us to question what we mean by "learning disability." For here we see that the students with "impairments," who perform poorly in school, can be among those who come back as adults having achieved great things in their careers. Their performance in school did little to predict what they achieved later in life. Thinking back to the example of Gallaudet University, where the hearing person becomes the one who is "disabled" in an environment where everyone speaks ASL, the definition of "disabled" can be turned on its end when the context is changed. Therefore, perhaps we need to revisit the context of learning currently valued in school, and broaden our definition of learning to include ideas that are more broadly useful in life outside of school. Opening the door to other contexts for learning, and using these as a measure of success, we can raise the achievement levels of all students in our classrooms, and hopefully do away with ambiguous labels like "learning disability" that do more harm than good.
Let us examine how inabilities for attention, traditionally thought of as impairments to learning, can help us turn the definition of "disability" upside down, so as to help those with attention difficulties turn this challenge into a strength. We will illustrate this idea with examples drawn from research about people with dyslexia.
Sensory attention is important in learning because it helps students focus on a task and prevent the influence of irrelevant distractions that interrupt the rehearsal required by the learning at hand. But these attention networks are actually serving two functions that are distinct: On the one hand, attention increases our sensitivity to information that's important at the moment (facilitation); on the other hand, attention decreases our awareness of stimuli thought to be irrelevant (inhibition). Attention therefore acts like a seesaw. It increases our awareness of some things, but at the same time decreases our awareness of other things. This seesaw quality of attention can lead to learning advantages in people whose abilities for attention are poor.
Attention Deficits Also Can Lead to Strengths
Attention difficulties can lead to advantages because attention networks sometimes make mistakes. The brain is being bombarded by sensory information, and attention networks guess which of these bits of sensory information are important, are deserving of scarce cognitive resources, or can be safely ignored. Attention is therefore acting like the editor of a newspaper. Editors guess which stories are going to be most interesting and important to the paper's readers and set those stories on page one in big boldface type, but they bury other stories deemed to be less important in a tiny column on page 52.
Because editors are guessing, they sometimes make mistakes. Unless they get direct feedback from their readers (say, in the form of letters to the editor), there is no way they can know in advance whether or not any given bit of news will be important to a reader such as you. Maybe what is most important to you is a tiny little personal ad on page 52. But, because the editor put a story about the mayoral race on page one, you spent all your time reading a story that turned out not to be very important to you, and (top)
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caused you to overlook the personal ad that could have changed your life forever.
Sensory attention networks are making similar guesses. Unless they get feedback from the brain, they can sometimes hinder learning by directing precious neuronal resources to page-one items that are in hindsight not so important, and bury on page 52 the sensory information that could change your life. This can happen especially if the important information comes as a surprise, so that the brain doesn't have time to provide feedback that consciously redirects the flow of information (say, by telling the eyes to look elsewhere).
Sensory attention networks can also make a mistake that hinders learning when the information is something we learn implicitly, without conscious awareness. For example, learning visual gist is something that happens without conscious awareness, such as when we learn the myriad, subtle visual distinctions that make a dog a dog. Under such circumstances, a person who has superb abilities for sensory attention may learn poorly, while the person whose abilities for attention are poor may be more likely to learn well.
Imagine you are commuting by subway, deeply absorbed in a novel. The process of reading invokes inhibitory attention networks that help you focus on your book. You become oblivious to your surroundings. Perhaps you become so absorbed in your reading that you no longer are aware of the constant clicking of the tracks, or the sounds of the people coming and going from the train car. You lose track of time, lose awareness of your surroundings, and perhaps don't even notice you missed your stop! Though your excellent abilities for attention served you well for the task of reading, they also caused you to fail to notice important information that would have helped you realize that you had arrived at your stop. In this case, when the important task was to notice you had reached your stop, strong abilities for attention were a detriment that caused you to do something you didn't intend.
Whether or not excellent abilities for attention can be regarded as a talent or a deficit therefore depends entirely on the context. Attention is a talent if the context of learning requires focus and diminished sensitivity to distraction, but the same abilities for attention can be a deficit if the learning context requires awareness of a broader, holistic set of factors that are difficult to explicitly define. Simply by changing the task we require of our students, we can turn a student who is performing poorly into a student who performs at high levels.
This observation points to two important lessons for educators:
First, it suggests that we can improve achievement for all students, regardless of their neurological predisposition, simply by addressing both ends of the seesaw of attention when we teach and evaluate our students. All too often, instructional strategies tend to overemphasize one end of the seesaw. We tend to emphasize teaching approaches that place high demands on abilities for focused attention by relying on the use of words, text, and/or numbers. Instruction at the opposite end of the seesaw, which builds knowledge through images, stories, models, experiences, and metaphor, tends to be deemphasized in the classroom once students learn to read. And yet, the implicit learning that is possible through mechanisms of distributed attention is no less valid than the learning that takes place through focused attention. To make better use of the capabilities that all students bring to learning, presentations grounded in words, text, and numbers should be balanced by other forms of instruction that build intuition through implicit learning, and that make use of neurological abilities people are capable of at the opposite end of the seesaw. For example, consider the words we use to help students categorize a dog: "a dog is a carnivorous mammal that is a domesticated variant of the gray wolf, characterized by a long snout and acute sense of smell." These words should be balanced with instruction that provides students with rich experiences—visits to pet shops, movies, storybooks, pictures, and physical interactions with pets—to help students grasp the gist of a dog by making use of attentional mechanisms on the opposite end of the seesaw.
Moreover, this balanced approach shouldn't stop with instruction. The assessments we use should also be balanced. Written assessments, which depend on abilities for focused attention, should be supplanted with other forms of assessment—e.g., posters, presentations, models, movies, drawings, pictures, and stories—that draw on a more implicit understanding, and students should be judged on whichever approach shows them in the best light. Doing so, we are likely to discover that a number of the children in our classroom are learning disabled. And as teachers, we will begin to feel more successful in that we can reach all students in our charge.
The second point we can take away from the parable of the subway pertains to the very question of whether or not we as educators should be labeling such great numbers of our students as learning disabled. People who learn differently, such as those with dyslexia, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorders, and who tend to exhibit tremendous struggles while in school, sometimes go on to perform at extraordinarily high levels later in life. Once out of school, these individuals sometimes blossom. Some have become Nobel Laureates, distinguished writers, and successful business entrepreneurs. The fact that they succeed only after they exit the educational system is a sad commentary on how schools sometimes fail these people. This suggests that the assessments we are using in schools do not effectively judge the capabilities of our students, outside some narrow context that has meaning only in the classroom.
Both the parable of the subway and the story of Gallaudet, remind us that what we think of as an inherent deficit can be turned into an asset simply by changing the task we ask our students to perform. Therefore, it is entirely possible that many of those students we now label as learning disabled, whom we perhaps think of as broken thermometers, fail to show their capabilities only because we are not offering assessments that reveal their strengths. In perpetuating labels such as "learning disabled," we do our profession harm by encouraging a way of thinking that actively neglects the capabilities these children possess. Instead of labeling the students as "broken," we as educators might think of ourselves as neuroscientists, and take careful note of the strengths we observe among our students who think differently. Knowing what these strengths are, recognizing that they may draw on capabilities that sit on a less familiar end of the seesaw of attention, we can then apply our creativity to find new ways to build upon these strengths. Doing so, we not only might uncover ways to help all students learn and achieve, but also might further our own creative potential as professionals who are carrying out cutting-edge work at the intersection of neuroscience and education.
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