William Pooley raises some interesting questions here about attention span. Should we be “so willing to assume that every individual has a fixed ‘span’ (which can be stretched, or curtailed, perhaps, but still exists as a kind of objective measure)”? The notion of us needing to maintain or enhance our focus is something Jason Elsom raised earlier this week in his tweet “How to focus in the age of… SQUIRREL!!!” (@JasonElsom). In both cases there are undertones of the now well-disseminated TED talk by Ken Robinson in which he claims too much of education is anaesthetising children.
I’d like, however, just to take an anecdotal sideways look at this.
Boys, we all know (because we are told we all know) have poor fine motor control, poor attention span., &c., &c. While William P is right that a serious study needs to be done on attention (I once found some interesting evidence of English monks in the Middle Ages muttering about long, rambling sermons, and attention during prayer has long been the focus of spiritual writers, but that’s even more of a digression), he is also right that this discourse of attention itself needs sustained enquiry. What follows is merely a snapshot.
Evan was having a good time – on and off – with the cars one week. Evan was four. One day he found that smashing trucks down a plank meant that the car crash was more spectacular than brumming them together. He built a ramp with planks and bricks to stop the trucks from falling off the sides. So far, an hour has passed. Group time, tidy-up time. Home time.
The next day he returns to the play, builds up the ramp, asks for some technical help about stopping the planks from sliding off the bricks (masking tape) and returns to his exploration of car crashes. He spends half and hour on this, goes to the loo, comes back – you can see where this is going. His key worker comes and sits with him from time to time, asking questions, finding masking tape, suggesting better cars – and by now fetching them from down the classroom where Evan is by now getting them to zip to. Two hours pass that day.
By the end of the third day, Evan has, in effect, devised an experiment to see whether how steep the ramp is affects how far the cars go. His key worker’s job on his Foundation Stage Profile is nearly done – if that’s a factor here.
My point is that the ‘discourse of attention span,’ when it hits the early years needs to take account of motivation: “Can concentrate on a self-chosen task” is a different thing (almost) entirely from “Can do as s/he is told for at least five minutes without wandering off.” Confusing the two risks misunderstanding the nature of self-motivated learning.