In his latest vlog post, Howard Rheingold addresses an increasingly difficult problem for educators: Attention in a hypermediated age. Rheingold takes things beyond the usual “let’s debate multitasking – good or bad?” to the real heart of the matter: How to focus the wired mind?
Zen mind, wired mind?
The more I thought about Rheingold’s exploration, the more it reminded me of Buddhist insight meditation practice, which involves focusing the mind on a particular sensation, while allowing other stimuli (thoughts, feelings, sounds, etc) to simply come and go. I’m not suggesting we bring religion into the classroom but I do think it’s possible to repurpose a 2500 year old idea to secular ends. When it comes to the mind, I’m open to all and any good ideas.
“All technologies are extensions
of our physical and nervous systems.”
– Marshall McLuhan, from Understanding Media (1964)
Marshall McLuhan understood technology as an extension of our sensory apparatus. The problem is how to channel that engagement beyond our own immediate delights to some meaningful ends outside of ourselves. It’s key to productivity as well as more collective, meaningful and less individualistic uses of technology.
Rheingold’s approach is simple: Remove all stimuli from our immediate learning space and focus our attention on our attention. Where it goes. Where it stays. Then, gradually, reintroduce our sensory extensions (laptops, cell phones, etc) .
Speaking from my own experience as an educator, it’s clear that multitasking learners bring varying degrees of sophistication and intentionality to any given task. Let’s call it “multitasking intelligence.”
Gamers, for example (especially MMO players) may have far more advanced abilities to effectively focus simultaneous points of interaction and attention. Similarly, web professionals like myself have learned geeky strategies for productivity (like GTD) while engaging giant info-diets. We know that it is possible to focus our minds despite a constant flow of data from a variety of sources.
Less knowledgeable users of technology, however, while they may be identifiably multitasking, often lack strategic approaches or info-agility when faced with techno-multitasking. For many learners, simply concentrating while at school – computer or no computer, is also an issue. This group also includes those educators – from primary teachers to post-secondary academics – who have actively resisted technology and now find themselves critically unable to cope with, understand or relate to increasingly wired learners.
Rheingold’s post serves to reinforce the need for new peer and collaborative learning approaches that bridge the divide between these two groups – via technology as well as simple techniques of mind training. It’s also great opportunity for geeky educators to share what they know about the wired mind. The challenge here is twofold:
1. To learn from uber-multitaskers and understand how they focus their attention (and teach those skills to less strategic learners – including teachers).
2. To practice insightful and intelligent (structured) approaches to mind training that integrates and involves the current sensory paradigms of today’s learners.
Extended reading: Mel Levine on NPR
In addition to the challenges of technology, we must also address the initial conditions of the learner and their individual sensory apparatus. To that end, here’s a great NPR interview with Mel Levine, one of the foremost specialists in developmental learning issues and strategies for “diverse minds” (aka learning disabilities).