Here is my researchEDHome talk on attention.
And, if you want to chase up any of the references they’re embedded is the slides below:
I also want to recapitulate an answer I gave to one of the questions I was asked about the distinction between instruction and curriculum. Part of my talk tried to explain Polanyi’s idea about ‘subsidiary awareness’. Essentially, although attention implies a ‘withdrawal’ of focus from one set of things in order to concentrate on another, we nevertheless retain our subsidiary sense. So, for instance, if you were probing a tooth to release a morsel of trapped food most of your attention would be on the food but you would still have a subsidiary awareness of your tongue. If you were to switch focus onto your tongue you would become less aware of the food morsel’s presence. When we read, we usually focus all our attention on meaning, but then we might notice a particularly interesting turn of phrase (or we might become confused) and our attention switches to focus on the subsidiarity of the texture of sounds/letters/syntax to resolve the difficulty or enjoy the sensation before we switch back to the text as a whole.
In the classroom, if our attention is on the act of instruction we’re likely to have a subsidiary awareness of the content we’re teaching. Likewise, if we’re focussing on the content we will be less aware of the process of teaching. New teacher typically have to focus heavily on the act of teaching because it’s new to them; as we become more experienced we begin to rest our attention on our students’ responses to instruction. This a similar shift we’re we teach content we’re unfamiliar with; if we’re not sure of the subject our attention is diverted from students to content. The point I tried to make in the talk was, I think now, not quite right. I said that instruction was the finger pointing and the content what was being point to.
I think it would better to rephrase my proposition like this: the act of teaching the content is the pointing finger, students’ response to and understanding of the content is what’s being pointed to. The content – the curriculum – is not an inert block of knowledge to be consumed, rather it is something from which we ‘make sense’. What we already know determines what this sense will be; I often find that the act of explaining cause me to become aware of new and deeper levels of meaning. The more simply I can explain something, the better I seem to understand it. (I say ‘seems’ because sometimes I can feel quite confident I’ve explained something well only to realise on further study that my understanding was woefully inaccurate.)
Anyway, the point of all this is to say that instruction is likely to be most successful when our teaching remains in the background (as a subsidiarity) and our attention is kept on the new meanings students make of the curriculum.
Also, here’s a link to study on the effects of music on attention sent through during the presentation by ‘Andrew’.