The Changing Face of Inattention

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education, Life in the Classroom, Mathematics, Social Issues

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A student who had been absent in algebra came in to make up work. She needed to create a reference sheet that showed the graphs of different kinds of functions. She was logged in and asked where to find the information. I told her, face to face and eye to eye, “Google ‘Math is Fun, Graphs of Functions.'” She nodded that she understood.

A few minutes later she called me over and said the website didn’t have any pictures of graphs. Sure enough, her monitor was full of text. I asked her what she had Googled.

“Linear functions.”


“That’s what it says on the board.” (The board said nothing about Googling anything. The “linear functions” written there was unrelated to her assignment.)

“Why didn’t you just Google what I told you?”

“I couldn’t remember.”

Another time a different student asked what she was supposed to do. For fun, I asked if she remembered what was in her head when I went over the written instructions she held in her hand. She said, “It’s weird, it’s like a blank, but I really thought I was paying attention.”

Now, I’ve been teaching since the Bangles sang “Walk Like an Egyptian.” One of the first things I learned was to repeat everything. A lot. As in a lot more than anybody but a teacher could imagine. I complained about it to my principal – one of those “research shows” types.

She said, “Research shows (see, I told you so) that if you want 25 students to hear something, you pretty much need to say it 25 times.”

But today there seems to be a different kind of not paying attention – a kind of blank grey space.

Several authors can explain what’s happening, or rather what is not happening in the pre-frontal cortex – the here and now part of the brain.

In The Age of Distraction: Why It’s Crucial for Students to Learn to Focus, Katrina Schwartz refers to Daniel Goleman’s  Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. It turns out that the brain is the last organ to fully develop. These days, with so many digital distractors, the attention-paying circuitry in many adolescents doesn’t get the opportunities for sustained concentration it needs to mature. (As a bonus, that same pre-frontal circuitry governs empathy and self-control. Think of the implications.)

In class that plays out when students say, “I’m multi-tasking” when asked to pay attention. But David Rock, in Your Brain At Work, writes that multi-tasking should be called multi-distracting. Technically, it’s called continuous partial attention. Rock explains it with the metaphor that when too many actors are on a stage we can only pay attention to some while we ignore the rest. But it feels like we’re seeing everything.

The results are less comprehension, less recall, and more not knowing what we don’t know.

Goleman warns of the grave consequences we face unless we begin to intentionally instruct kids in how to pay attention. He favors training in mindfulness targeted at adolescents.

But my students above had no external distractions when they didn’t pay attention, and no obvious internal ones, either. Could it be that instead of being able to focus better, the absence of distractions somehow leaves students insensate, like an empty room with the TV on?

In Cognitive Surplus, my hero Clay Shirky writes that social media attract us more than consumptive media because with social media our presence matters. After all, without our collaboration in producing the content, it wouldn’t exist. And creating, sharing, and evaluating content gives us greater cognitive pleasure than merely consuming it.

So I’m stuck. I want kids to find cognitive pleasure in working together to find creative solutions to hard problems. But they can’t solve hard problems without being able to focus. It ends up sounding like I need to teach kids to pay attention so that they can better engage in the activites that are distracting them in the first place.

And that kind of thinking has led me to my own blank grey space.





I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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