Charlie Brown, TikTok snippets, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam try to keep focussed as they discuss attention spans. Does the new generation have a shorter span? Why is it easier to focus on something like a hobby? Plus, Andy talks of Bob Dylan’s experience of being ‘in the zone’ early on in his career.
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Hi. I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi. I'm Robin Potter.
Hi. I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast.
Welcome to the School of School podcast.
So, welcome back to another episode of School of School podcast. I'm here with Andy and Adam. Hello, both.
And we are here, you see, I don't even have their attention to start. I can barely get your attention to say hello. So I think that's actually a great introduction to what we're going to talk about on this episode, which is attention spans. Dah, dah, dah, dah. And I'm kind of curious because I know my two children have very different lengths of attention when they're talking to me. I don't even think I can ... I can barely get either of their attention, but in particular, if I don't have them focused with maybe I'm dangling a piece of candy in front of me or something, I'm easy to ignore. But what about in the classroom? I'm really curious these days. We've got a lot of things going on. Sometimes kids are allowed to have their phones in classrooms. How on earth do teachers keep their attention in the class?
Well, I don't think that people have ever had great attention spans. I think the mind is meant to wander. It just wanders. The stream of consciousness thing is just like ... if you ever tried things like meditation where you're supposed to keep your mind empty, it's almost impossible, right? You can't stop your mind from thinking or going in different directions. Some people can remain focused on things better than others, but I don't know. Is it a new thing? Is it something that we created or has it always been like that? I've never had a great attention span. I still don't.
But I'm actually fascinated, right? So I'm fascinated, because clearly attention is not a set thing. If something's boring you to death, you're going to look elsewhere. If something is sort of, I don't know, there's a fireworks display or something, it might hold your attention slightly longer. So it's obviously dependent on what you're doing.
I think in the classroom, Robin, one of the nice things is is that if you are teaching a class or you are involved in something, there's enough going on that actually, whilst you're paying attention to the whole class, you're actually kind of having your attention drawn in a million different things. So, you're not paying attention to one thing at all because there's all stuff going on, a bit like your skyrockets going off all over the show. So, it works well if you've not got a great attention span, because you're having to attend to all sorts of things all at once.
I used to have teachers when I was young who I think they attended to themselves and they just lectured for hours on end. And I'm not quite sure what they were attending to. It wasn't us. But I don't know. I'm fascinated by it. Yeah, go on.
Peanuts. Peanuts, the cartoon.
Like Charlie Brown and Lucy and the team.
You know what we're talking about. Yeah, you know. That was the thing as well.
Wah, wah, wah, wah.
That was the teacher. That was the teacher, right? Wah, wah, wah, wah.
That was the classroom.
Yeah, that's all you heard because you weren't really paying any attention at all.
And often that's all the kids hear, right? But that's not a new thing, is it? But yeah, so I guess Robin, but you seem to be implying or thinking that your kids' attention span is shorter than people's attention span was maybe when we were children.
Maybe it's just more obvious how short it is.
Well it's obvious because you are the one that's trying to get them to pay attention to you, right?
And they have a device. It's not just them looking out the window.
It's easier for them to ignore you maybe. Yeah.
Yeah. And it's more obvious to me that they're ignoring me rather than-
Okay, but maybe they have
Maybe they have hyper extension, maybe they're better at it. Because my kids and my wife, we're watching stuff and they're on their phones while we're watching stuff and they know what's going on. And I'm like, how do you do that? I can't do that.
But see, I think this chicken and the egg thing, is that it's easy for me to sit back, whenever I want to feel old this is the sort of thing that I say, it's like, well, the attention span of the youth, today's gone to the pop. It's awful. And it's the bloody computers and the phones that do it. Well, maybe the phones have just tapped into that mobile ... what are they called? Fireworks display. All it's doing is here's something that you can spend a nanosecond on, and then another one and another one and another one. And all it's doing is tapping into something we've always done. It's just that-
It's like micro-learning.
Yeah, hey, it's-
Hey, there we go.
For listeners out there refer to episode number ... hear our expertise on it. And maybe that's the case that it's just tapped into something that we've always done. We've always done it. We've wandered through the woods and looked at stuff. And again, I sound a hundred years old as if we were just constantly wandering through the woods looking at stuff. But yeah, it's always been thus, that we've never really paid attention at all.
Okay. Okay. So let's say we've always had short attention spans. I didn't even hear what you said, Adam. I was looking out the window thinking about something else.
What are we talking about?
Okay, but no, but seriously, no, but okay, so what do teachers do to get their students to focus on them and to actually, that's going back to the question.
You do what TikTok does.
That's a good question.
No, I was going to say, I just think you do what TikTok does is that you go, right, here's a snippet. Are you interested in it? Have a look, have a play with it for a moment. Now bring it back to this and then back to you, and then this and that. Oh, what's that? Oh, go and have a play with it. Yeah, totally.
And it goes back to the old, old, old, but that structured learning, right? The exploration structured learning. Oh, what have you got in front of you there? Some cubes. Well, what have you made? No way. Could you make a tail that's just one bigger than that? No, you couldn't, could you? I'll leave it to you. Oh, really? One less, no, what have you made? That sort of thing.
It's that same idea about dropping something in. Just drop it in, drop it in, drop it in, and you're just growing on what you're doing. I'm not sure that that's that different to what happens with any sort of programmable feature that Andy likes looking at that. These are the types of things so he likes looking at, kittens that do something or whatever your bent is, Andy, and it learns that, right? So now I'm going to drop this in and this in and this in, and it will keep him coming back for more. And I guess that's kind of what we try to tap into teaching, I would've thought.
But there are things too that, so those are the small sort of things that you do in the moment. But there are other larger things that you can do that help as well I believe. One is routines, classroom routines. So you set an expectation as to what's going to happen next so that people are aware of what the process is going to be. And then if you can kind of, not automate it, but make it so predictable in a way that it's like, I don't know if you can think of lots of different areas in your life where this applies. Just getting up in the morning, you get up in the morning and what do you do next? Do you brush your teeth? Do you comb your hair? Do you have a shower? All these different things are routines that you apply. You apply those to your day to day, and then they help you with dealing with some of that attention span stuff.
And the other thing is kind of the internal dialogue that you get in your mind. For example, this metacognitive dialogue that you have. So you can train that into kids to say, okay, if you keep asking them the same questions all the time, eventually they'll start asking themselves those questions. So that metacognitive dialogue. So you can train. It's kind of like training, I don't want to say training a dog because it's like, well, I don't want to reduce it down to that. But it is. Dogs know routines. Every afternoon at 4:30, I take the dogs for a walk, right? Well, 4:35, the dogs are just hopping around the house if we haven't gone for a walk yet, right? They're like, what's going on? It's 4:35 now, it's walk time. So routines, metacognitive scripts that you can implant in your brain. Oh, how do you know? Are you sure? Did you check with your friend? Those things, they all help with those attention span things because we like routines and we just fall into them. So they can help. They can help.
And being interactive, yeah.
Yeah. Using manipulatives.
Engaging, making them, yeah, exactly.
Knowing that they have to talk to the person next to them or that there's an expectation that they're going to have to do this, that, and whatever, that it keeps them on task. And those things do help. They do help. I think if you leave people to themselves for too long, they will drift. But the question is how long? Because the other factor is you don't want to interrupt them all the time either. So it is like keep it moving, keep it moving. But hey, they're having this profound thing and you're like, I'm going to interrupt you now and I want you to do what I'm thinking all the time isn't helpful either.
And I guess that's the judgement call of the teacher. And that will be dependent on all sorts of things. So if you're doing something that you love, I imagine if it's a music lesson, Andy, then it's something that you're probably not going to need too much encouragement. And I'm just going to give you a couple of tips every now and then where necessary. And you're probably going to be attending to that, no problem whatsoever. Whereas I might need a bit more coaxing or something, a different approach.
Well, here's an interesting thing. You just kind of touched on something there that I was thinking about earlier. When you look at something like, so I'm big into music, but I know Robin, you're really into fitness, and Adam, I know you probably have some stuff that you do that's also kind of more self, I don't want to say self-centred, but it's kind of like where you have to go into some kind of zone.
So I've recently, I've taken up rowing, inspired by my son. I've got myself a rowing machine, and every morning I do a good go on the rowing machine. I get in some kind of zone when I'm in there, what's my attention span there? Or if I'm playing music, my brain is in a completely different place than when I'm not doing those kinds of things. Something happens there. I don't know what it is. I don't even know how to describe it. It's almost like a hypnosis or something where you kind of lose, this channel opens up, this just channel opens up where you can do things without even considering them. I can play music, when I play music, when I start thinking about what I'm playing, it all falls apart. It just collapses. It's just this channel. What is that thing and what does that have to do with attention span?
Well, yeah, that's a whole other topic, but I agree that it's almost like we have an attention span. It's something that we're being forced to focus on rather than the flow as you discuss, where it just comes naturally. And so you're just in this state rather than having to try and pay attention to what you're doing.
Well, I think the routines open that flow. It's the same when you work. Sometimes when you're working, there's certain elements of what you're doing where you just boom, you're in it and then time just passes.
I wonder, it reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. I don't know if you've read it.
Yeah, great book.
So I think perhaps he's talking about the fact that people excel, but practise, a lot of practise and it becomes, and maybe that's what we're talking about, maybe the things that we love and we do anyway, and we've done for a long time, that you reach a level that allows you to get that sort of hyper focus that everything else disappears because you're no longer consciously thinking about lots of moving parts. You're just doing. You are just doing.
And you hear, I mean most often hear it on the telly, like sports people where they just say, "I was in the zone. I couldn't hear anything else. I couldn't hear the crowd. I couldn't." It was just, you heard about McEnroe, "The ball was this big and it was unmissable." And that sort of thing.
And I just wonder if you can reach a stage with some things where you're not attending to anything to get, you can just kind of let go almost. Because all of those, the sort of functions that most of us would need to think about it to make it happen, you don't have to attend to them anymore. There's just something that you can go with. It's beyond my level of expertise. But I think it's really interesting that that way of describing something where you can kind of just let go and something else happens or the focus becomes absolute.
Yeah. It's the muse, right? It's like when you talk about, artists talk about it all the time, whether they're painters and they say, "I don't know. I don't know. I wasn't even thinking about it. This is what came out." Or songwriters and poets. They're like, "I don't know who wrote this song. I didn't write it. I just got my pen out and it just came out. I wasn't even thinking about it. I don't know where it came from." It's interesting, right? Is that the opposite of the lack of attention span, or is it the same thing? I don't know.
But I wonder how much attention you've paid, maybe it's the payoff for attention, right? Because chances are, I don't know this to be true, by the way, but most of the time when you hear people describing that situation, they've put in a lot of time practising effectively and learning prior to getting to that level. So I guess the attentions, it's the payoff. It's the attention payoff at the end of it, perhaps. I don't know, it's interesting. I'm fascinated by it.
I'm not a neuroscientist, I'm not a psychologist. I'm not, all the disclaimers here.
Let's be clear.
I don't know anything about any of this stuff, and I have no idea what I'm talking about. But it's kind of like there's this part of your brain that likes to think it's in control, which speaks English. You know what I mean? And it says things to you and it does things. And it's kind of like where you exist most of the time. And sometimes it's kind of like you can just wipe that away. And then the rest of your brain, which doesn't speak English, and you have absolutely no control over, can do these remarkable things. And that's where all the remarkable things seem to happen. The cleverness, the creativity, the sort of inspiration and these aha moments that pop out. It's almost kind of like, how do you strip that bit of the brain away so that all that other really smart part of you can actually go to work? And this ego that's in the way that's trying to control everything is kind of messes stuff up.
And that's the one that has the problem with the attention span in my mind, right? Because it's kind of like a four year old and it's just not even a four year old, it's like an 18 month old just learning how to walk and getting into everything and it can't stop itself. It's almost like this, it's like, I don't know, I should write, this is my own psychology theory here. Right?
It's fascinating though. We need to get someone on who can help-
Who know all this stuffs.
Who demystifies some of this.
Who might be a neuroscientist?
Yeah, there are people who understand this stuff much more profoundly, but it's not even about the mechanics of how it works, I don't think. It's just more just kind of like the, you know?
And I'd like to think there's a part that people don't know actually, I've decided, because you think of all the great creatives. I'd like to think there's a part of that that just remains mystical. I think that, you know?
So you think you get better with time, for example, right? But you look at, I remember hearing, who was it, Bob Dylan was talking about this and he said, "Yeah, those songs that I wrote," the songs that we all know that Bob Dylan's like, "I don't even know who that person was. I don't remember writing. I don't even know how I wrote the songs, but I can tell you I can't write them anymore. I don't know how it happened. I wasn't present." That's kind of how he talks about it. It's interesting.
It's fascinating. I love it. It's fascinating. We need to find out more. I'm not sure what the find out more part is.
But curious anyway.
Let's see if we can get Bob Dylan on the podcast.
I think that'd be a-
Yeah, work on that.
Let me just send him a message.
I'm sure he'll say yes.
Get a sample tape ready to him-
Of course he will.
Just in case he signs you up and takes it from there. Did we answer your question? Did we get back to?
Yeah, I don't think so.
And the kids, Robin? It's just the kids. It's just not attention. It's just your own children. For all of us.
It's just my own children.
Maybe not for Andrew, but I can empathise.
Okay. That makes me feel better.
Here's an interesting question. What's more important? Is it attention span or a stream of consciousness?
Truth. That's another episode.
I don't know.
Can we come back to that one? Can I just give it a bit of thought?
Yeah, think about it. Don't lose attention on it though. Just got to stay focused.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.