The summaries continue.
I have spent a good deal of my life struggling to find ways to pay attention, even as I read this chapter. It was an interesting chapter and I am deeply interested in the subject. But I have had to develop mechanisms throughout my life to help me get through reading and other tasks. If I am ever a speaker or writer who holds your attention, it is because I will get bored with myself as quickly as any of you will. Boring is the death knell of a sermon, a classroom--a university that is boring is a dead man walking.
"Better attention always equals better learning" (74). Accordingly, if we are interested in people learning something, we had better take holding attention into account. Medina believes that research puts the normal attention span at 10 minutes. He treats this time limit as somewhat universal, but there are other voices that suggest that the number may have some cultural dimensions. For example, I have heard more recently that the number is down to 7 minutes among younger people in the United States.
What sorts of things impact our attention? Medina's first list starts with memory. "We use previous experience to predict where we should pay attention" (75). Culture can play a major role in that regard. For example, someone who lives in the jungle of New Guinea pays attention to things a Westerner would hardly notice, and vice versa.
Other interests or sources of arousal are more universal. The unusual or unpredictable usually grabs our attention. Medina also talks about what little we know about how awareness takes place. The brain has two haves. The left hemisphere has a rather limited "spotlight" on the world and is only capable of paying attention to things on the right side of our visual field (77). The right one, on the other hand, has a more "global spotlight."
Medina's next section deals with the process of grabbing our attention. He draws on the work of Michael Posner to suggest a "Trinity Model," a three stage process of grabbing attention. Stage one involves what Posner calls the "Alerting or Arousal Network" (79). Medina intentionally began the chapter with the story of a man who broke into his house with a gun in the middle of the night. That's the kind of story that triggers the brain's "surveillance and alert" instincts. It works with our "Intrinsic Alertness."
Next our brain shifts to "Phasic Alertness" (79). "We orient ourselves to the attending stimulus." We gain more information in our "Orienting Network." This network then leads to our "Executive Network" and "oh my gosh what should I do now" behaviors.
So what gets our attention? First, emotions get our attention (79-82). "Emotionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events" (79). Medina calls one an ECS, an "emotionally competent stimulus." When our brain detects an ECS, the amygdala in the brain releases dopamine, which is like a Post-It note that says, "Remember this" (81).
These emotionally charged events are of two sorts, ones that no two individuals experience in the same way and ones that everyone experiences identically. The individual ones are often tied to specific memories from our past. Clanging pots arouse different emotions for Medina than for his wife because his mother used to clang pots washing the dishes when she was angry.
Meanwhile, we have universally experienced stimuli from our evolution, Medina would say. We feel in predictable ways when a stimulus leads us to ask questions like "Will it eat me?" or "Will it mate with me?" "Have I seen it before?"
A second way to help us pay attention is to give the big picture before getting to the details (82-84). "Arousal focuses attention on the 'gist' of an experience at the expense of peripheral details" (83). (As a side note, one wonders if personality comes into play here, since some personalities are more detailed oriented) "Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts" (84).
A third warning Medina gives is that the brain cannot truly multitask (84-88). If you get a text message while working on a paper, you have to shift away from one activity and activate a new part of your brain to look at the next activity. To return to the paper, you have to shift again and activity the paper writing parts of your brain again. "Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors" (87). Some people can switch tasks
more quickly than others but no one can truly multitask in terms of paying
attention (we can do some things subconsciously like walking while talking to
Finally, the brain needs a break. "Most teachers overstuff their students" (88). "Relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots" does not facilitate good learning. He comes to a conclusion with which many students will identify: "expertise doesn't guarantee good teaching" (89).
He ends the chapter with a classroom session designed around these insights. (On a side note, he falls short because he is still primarily speaking in terms of lecture rather than diversified activities) He divides a 50 minute class into 10 minute segments. Each 10 minute segment is divided into 1 minute of overview, and 9 minutes of more details.
At the end of each ten minute segment, he "baits the hook" by triggering an emotion. He usually starts with a hook at the beginning of the lecture. Then after two or three hooks, about halfway through the lecture, he has found he doesn't need to hook more.
His parting word: "Do one thing at a time" (93). It reminds one of a time management tip to divide your day into small 20-30 minute tasks. Shut off email and other distractions until you finish it. Take a short break. Then move on to the next task.