“Although people seem to be unaware of it to-day, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.
“… every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.”
From “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,”
by Simone Weil
Hey grey-beard, hey Mr. Luddite, hey you-who-can’t-even-operate-a-smartphone, I don’t think you have a right to tell me what to do with my phone!
Well, here goes anyway. I expect to be mocked; I stand ready for a barrage of rotten tomatoes; I suspect I may be banished from the kingdom.
I hereby announce that in the fall of 2017, the #1 expectation we want for our high school students is this: to put your phone away while doing your school work.
Our 16-and-17-year-olds taking driver’s education in another wing at our school step into their classroom and sees signs like these:
HANG UP AND DRIVE
NO TEXTING WHILE DRIVING
IT’S THE LAW
My English classroom would match that – with homemade signs like these:
NO TEXTING WHILE STUDYING
IT’S MY LAW!!!
We begin the school year trying to help our students establish good habits. I want my students to focus. Just as I wanted the soccer, tennis, and baseball players I coached to focus. Does anyone see Nolan Arenado checking his cell phone between pitches? Do we find Serena Williams reading texts between points? The best are focused. True as well for successful students.
How good to see, this summer, at my tennis club, the mountain of smartphones placed in a box—before the kids went out to take lessons. Hard enough to hit a ball rifled at you—if your eyes glance to the side to see if you have message. If the tennis pro can ask the boys and girls to put the damn phone away for an hour, can’t teachers do the same?
Over the past six years – a downward spiral
Tutoring high school students these past six years I see how increasingly difficult it is for them to avoid checking their phone, eyes darting off to look … and now even taking calls as I sit with them–in spite of the repeated requests from the adults in the room—not now, not here, please hold off until this session is over….
On the other hand, even an old-timer realizes that in 2017 more students are using the cell phones to find their homework, to do class work, and to read assigned articles—even books—for class. Making it only harder to know if students at the table ten feet away are on task—or not.
Some educators act like we’ve already lost the battle. In a Denver classroom last year I saw a teacher ask his students: “Please take the buds out of your ears” (i.e. would you be so kind to detach from your phone for a few minutes)—to watch and listen to the video he was showing them. Heaven forbid that we might inconvenience them ….
This won’t be easy; we are talking about something close to addiction. Some might beg off—you’re asking me to cut off my right hand! (after a summer when their smartphone seldom left it).
I have no answers. I only raise my voice in protest at what I see, confident that we will help our students learn—and live—by working on the critical habit: to pay attention. Age does not equal wisdom, but 67 years on this planet has at least taught me that to do anything well, we need to focus.
Three ideas. One: the faculty reads and discusses Simone Weil’s essay ““Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”—the most powerful essay I know on studying. Yes, it has a larger theme–on prayer, and paying attention to God. But please look at the excerpts in Addendum A. A secular school can still explore what truths they find in her words—and to ask what more it can do to address this vital skill. (And perhaps to develop a larger habit of character – the ability to pay attention … to another human being.)
A second idea: consider what some schools are doing to help students learn to focus. See - “Why students need to sit up and pay attention,” by Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy Charter Schools, in Addendum B.) Or talk with high school students about a series of articles on texting and driving--see Addendum C--and ask if they see the relevance for their lives, and their studies.
A third idea: schools and teachers can provide a multitude of examples – I offer a few here (Addendum D) – to emphasize that no, multi-tasking while studying – or driving, is not a virtue.
But to develop the tremendously difficult art of focusing well—yes, that is a virtue.
Excerpts from Simone Weil’s essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” (probably written in 1942; part of her collection of essays, Waiting for God).
The Key to a Christian conception of studies is the realisation that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it. …
Although people seem to be unaware of it to-day, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. Most school tasks have a certain intrinsic interest as well, but such an interest is secondary. All tasks which really call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree….
If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage.
It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.
… Quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit. An Eskimo story explains the origin of light as follows: “In the eternal darkness, the crow, unable to find any food, longed for light, and the earth was illumined.” If there is a real desire, if the thing desired is really light, the desire for light produces it. There is a real desire when there is an effort of attention.
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object. It means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of. Our thought should be in relation to all particular and already formulated thoughts as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains. Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object which is to penetrate it.
(To put our studies to their right use we must) take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we have failed, seeing how unpleasing and second-rate it is, without seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake or any of our tutor’s corrections, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great temptation to do the opposite, to give a sideways glance at the corrected exercise if it is bad, and to hide it forthwith. Most of us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation. Incidentally, moreover, nothing is more necessary for academic success, because, despite all our efforts, we work without making much progress when we refuse to give our attention to the faults we have made and our tutor’s corrections….
Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to one’s pupils: “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply. They have not been paying attention. They have been contracting their muscles…
Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade….
Twenty minutes of concentrated, untired attention is infinitely better than three hours of the kind of frowning application which leads us to say with a sense of duty done: “I have worked well!” …
In every school exercise there is a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go out in search of it. There is a way of giving our attention to the data of a problem in geometry without trying to find the solution, or to the words of a Latin or Greek text without trying to arrive at the meaning, a way of waiting, when we are writing, for the right word to come of itself at the end of our pen, while we merely reject all inadequate words.
Our first duty towards school-children and students is to make known this method to them, not only in a general way but in the particular form which bears in each exercise.
by Eva Moskowitz, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 13, 2015
Moskowitz, the founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy Charter Schools, writes of the expectations Paul Fucaloro set for his classes that have become the standard for Success Academy classrooms. She acknowledges the criticism of the approach – even from two of her children who attend Success! – but she is persuaded Fucaloro’s approach has proved effective:
As Paul repeatedly preached to me, it’s morally wrong to let a child choose whether to pay attention, because many will make the wrong choice and we can’t let them slip through the cracks. So if a student had trouble paying attention, he’d move him to the front of the class, call his parents, keep him after school to practice. Whatever it took. Paul was relentless.
Some critics say that it’s hard for young children to focus. True. But it’s our job to teach them this. Recently, I was at a news conference at which I was asked why Success has strict rules regarding behavior. As I answered, the reporters didn’t stare off into space, look bored or fiddle with things. Because they were focusing. A school that fails to teach students this necessary skill isn’t doing right by them.
Too many 16- and 17-year-olds have personal experiences that make the road signs on distracted driving (page 1) tragically relevant. They might not heed the warnings – perhaps they are busy on their cell phone, zipping by above the speed limit, to even notice—but when they do, the words seem to be, well, at least about something real.
They are likely to be offended by any comparison between driving and studying—and focus. Come on, they will say, showing us the txt that just came in from Mom, this is not dangerous! I just need to see if and when my Mom is going to pick me up….
Dangerous? Well, at least worth discussing. I’d love to see teachers explore if and when the comparison has at least some validity. A few articles and headlines to get the conversation started.
1. “an epidemic of distracted driving … People on phones, on their devices.”
To be sure, government officials and insurance executives are nearly unanimous in fingering the smartphone as one of the main culprits in the recent uptick in fatalities — both in Colorado and across the country. As smartphone ownership has become the norm, the perils of distracted driving are overwhelming the advantages of newer, safer vehicles, these experts say.
“What the data tell me is we have an epidemic of distracted driving,” the executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) told The Colorado Statesman earlier this year. “People on phones, on their devices.”
“Why highway fatalities are going to fall,” by Vincent Carroll, The Denver Post, May 21, 2017. http://www.denverpost.com/2017/05/19/why-highway-fatalities-which-are-rising-are-going-to-fall/
2. “Cellphone ban effort fueled by bike death” (Denver Post, 11/20/08)
3. “Devices target districted driving” (USA TODAY, 1/17/12)
4. “Teen driving deaths: New increased causes concern” (Denver Post, 10/22/13)
5. “Aurora senior turns family tragedy into serious life lesson,” (Aurora Sentinel, 1/12/17)
“Rangeview’s ZIP Code, 80013, tops the list for distracted teen driving accidents in the metro area, according to JJ’s LIGHT, a student-led nonprofit organization that aims to combat distracted driving and raise money for family members of those affected by it. That data was compiled by Children’s Hospital Colorado….
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each day ‘over eight people (were) killed and 1,161 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.’ And the federal website dedicated to distracted driving awareness reports that 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 more injured in crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014.
6. “Distracted driving caused 40 crashes each day in Colorado last year, and CDOT wants it to stop” (Denver Post, 4/4/2017) – by Hayley Sanchez
“With a surge of 605 roadway fatalities in 2016 and Colorado officials calling distracted driving an ‘epidemic,’ the Colorado Department of Transportation has joined a national movement recognizing April as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
“‘I think people don’t understand the real danger when they take their eyes off the road,’ CDOT spokesman Sam Cole said. ‘We know that an accident happens in an instant, and unless you’re ready to respond, it could have tragic consequences. If you’re going 65, 70 miles per hour and take your eyes off the road to read a message, that’s the equivalent of driving the length of a football field, and a lot can happen in that time.’ …
“In a survey conducted by CDOT in November, 22 percent of Colorado drivers admitted to reading messages while driving, 64 percent used some sort of entertainment, and 33 percent talked on a handheld phone.
“It’s less about the law and more about the impact of what somebody distracted while driving can have. It’s not about writing tickets and punishing them,” he said. “It’s because too many people get killed in car crashes every year. I want people to do whatever they have to do to focus.” http://www.denverpost.com/2017/04/04/distracted-driving-caused-40-crashes-each-day-in-colorado-last-year-and-cdot-wants-it-to-stop/
7. “Phone addiction has unleashed a deadly toll” (Denver Post, 4/9/17)
Good Quotes on Focus and Paying Attention
“… is an act of total attention”
Photographer Dorothea Lange celebrated in PBS “American Masters” film, Aug. 29, 2014
Family, friends and colleagues recall not just her dedication to her art (and the negative fallout for family members), but also her ability to open the artist’s world to others.
Her granddaughter recalls the way Lange taught her to see — really see — for the first time, focusing on a handful of stones and shells at the beach. She demanded her young granddaughter’s full focus on the moment. “Yes, I see them, but do you see them?”
“And then she took the picture.”
Throughout, quotes from Lange illuminate her intentions and interpretations. Her commitment to “getting lost” in her work — a “mental disengagement,” she said, so that the artist “annihilates oneself” and becomes “only an observer” — is the artist’s profound recurring theme.
“To me, beauty appears when one feels deeply, and art is an act of total attention,” she said. http://www.denverpost.com/2014/08/27/photographer-dorothea-lange-celebrated-in-pbs-american-masters-film/
From “Man’s Nature is Good,” by Mencius – chapter 9
“Now chess-playing is but a small art, but without his whole mind being given, and his will bent, to it, a man cannot succeed at it. Chess Ch'iû is the best chess-player in all the kingdom. Suppose that he is teaching two men to play. The one gives to the subject his whole mind and bends to it all his will, doing nothing but listening to Chess Ch'iû. The other, although he seems to be listening to him, has his whole mind running on a swan which he thinks is approaching, and wishes to bend his bow, adjust the string to the arrow, and shoot it. Although he is learning along with the other, he does not come up to him. Why?— because his intelligence is not equal? Not so.”
From “’Present’ as a State of Mind,” by Ben Zimmer. The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 7, 2016
“The appeal of ‘being present’ is especially sharp at a time when our attention is diverted by countless electronic distractions. Perpetual inattention can lead to a state of mind that’s some scholars oxymoronically call ‘absent presence’: being there but not really being there.
“To be fully present can now men shutting off our screens and engaging directly with ourselves and those around us, in the spirit of quiet reflection.”
From Soledad O’Brien, founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group
On the value of getting back to horse riding after a terrible fall and reconstructive surgery on her knee:
“My brain is always going, multi-tasking, but when you ride, you really can’t multitask or you’ll kill yourself. You have to pay attention to your horse.”
Homegrown help for Rockies
Freeland making big-league debut six years after starring for TJ
The Denver Post, by Patrick Saunders
The announcement that Freeland would be the starting pitcher for the Rockies in their home opener sent his friends and former teammates scrambling for tickets. Humphrey’s Eaglecrest players will be at Coors Field too.
And, of course, members of Freeland’s family will be in attendance -- including his father, Do; his mother, Susan; and his older brother, Colin.
He steadily moved up the minor-league chain, and hoped to get a late call-up to the Rockies last September. That didn’t happen, only stoking his motivation to make the big-league roster this spring.
Those who know Freeland best say that composure will serve him well Friday when 50,000 fans pack Coors Field.
“He doesn’t allow a lot of distractions to creep in,” his big brother said. “He’s always been that way. It kind of sets him apart.”