Is our inability to pay attention in the classroom because of the deluge of information around us?

We’re surrounded by clutter of all kinds; gigabytes of data fly onto our computer screens every day, millions of words swim past our eyes as we scan our textbooks and notes in a desperate attempt to read and digest information, and everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by sound, images and text. We walk into the classroom, and the deluge of data continues. So who’s to be blamed when that old defence mechanism kicks in and we simply begin to tune out?

We are so used to being surrounded by unnecessary information that we begin to lose the ability to pay attention when we need to.

During classroom lectures, for instance. What is it that sustains our interest and keeps it alive? How is it that we can watch a cricket match for a whole day but focusing our attention on a lecture for 50 minutes seems impossible?

Generally, we tend to place the responsibility for holding our interest squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. That unfortunate individual is expected to be funny, smart, dynamic and compelling. This is a tall order, especially when one has to deliver it day after day. Maybe it’s time we turned this around a little bit. Can’t we do something to make things interesting for ourselves?

Most of us have specific (or individual) interests of different kinds — academic, professional, extra-curricular, leisure. It’s not hard to stay tuned in when doing things that involve our specific interests. But there are many more situations where we need to stay focused on something, with consequences for not paying attention: in school and college, and in life as well (think of that elderly uncle who comes to visit every week and makes you listen to a different version of his life story each time).

When we enter a formal programme of study, there are some courses we have no trouble staying interested in but there are others that we see as a necessary evil. When the time for exams comes around, we often find ourselves regretting that we did not pay more attention in class. But how can we keep ourselves attentive? How do we stay hooked to what is going on in the class even when we are desperately uninterested?

Sustaining interest

To figure this out, think about the things that catch your interest outside the classroom. Shows on television, items in the newspaper that grab and hold your attention, conversations you overhear on the bus that excite your curiosity… such things are of “situational” interest. They have a way of hooking on to your attention. Maybe you find a connection with your own life, or there’s something familiar that appeals to you. These are two major factors that help sustain interest — the sense of already knowing a little bit about something that is presented to us, and the idea that it relates in some way to us. This is why children like to listen to the same story over and over again, and like it even more if they somehow play a part in it.

Nurturing it

Listening with interest is an important skill. The interest is “cultivated”— that is, you nurture it by linking it to ideas already in your mind. To do this, you need to listen at three levels: one, at the level of the words being spoken and their meaning; two, at the conceptual level where you are simultaneously scanning your mind for anything related; and three, at an analytical level, where you are making linkages with other bits of information you already have in your head. This is easier to do in some subjects than others (social studies or language), and perhaps a little more difficult in others (mathematics or electronics).

Which brings me to the second way to find a hook to stay interested — reading ahead. This allows you to more easily relate to information presented in a lecture and therefore, stay focused on it. You will find that you engage at a deeper level because you have already dealt with the “surface meaning” during your first reading. You can actually raise questions, explore different viewpoints and grapple with the material in many ways. You can make interesting connections that require this familiarity — discovering, for instance, a concept in biology that helps you better understand a problem in physics.

In both instances, it is the ability to listen with your mind and connect different contexts that not only keeps you interested, but can lead to exciting ideas and discoveries (how else would Kekulé link dancing snakes with carbon chemistry?).

Although I tell students to come to class having read the material for a particular day, it’s exceptional to find that they have actually done it (one student said he would prefer to be “surprised” in the class!).

Learning can’t happen, and certainly, cannot be “fun”, without engagement — on both sides of the classroom.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus.



Preserving the CommonsJanuary 28, 2013