Attention and Education

I am no expert on economics.  However, I have noticed that many educational practices can be linked to economics.  For example, grading is typically done by collecting points.  If you have enough points, you can survive economic downturn (failing a test).  Sometimes you can purchase insurance (extra credit).  I am not surprised, given our culture, that our metaphors are often economic in nature, but I am unsure if economic metaphors are appropriate for education.  If a student is not learning, should we “foreclose” on his/her education, or work to identify what might be causing the struggle in hopes of helping the student learn?

Scott McLeod recently tweeted me something about the current “attention economy” and that we should design for it, or lose.  This is an interesting idea.  While I believe attention has always had a part to play in both economics and education (so this isn’t really a new problem), I think we want to use the word attention carefully.  Sure, lots of people are paying attention to Khan Academy right now, but just because people are paying attention does not make KA a good idea.  I’m sure we can think of all sorts of gimmicks used to get our attention that lack any sort of substance.  For example, McDonald’s gets kids attention with a toy in the happy meal, but this hardly makes the happy meal a nutritious meal.

Scott is right, but perhaps only superficially.  I will never see myself as a salesman of learning.  I don’t want to sell them anything.  I want them to be able to create, not buy.  I’m a science teacher, I can get students attention very very easily (insert explosion noise here), but if all I’m after is their attention, we have a real problem.  Endeavors like Khan Academy keep noting their numbers of visitors. 1:1 laptop initiatives note how students “like” the environment better and there are fewer behavioral concerns.  These are indications of attention, not of learning.  Attention may be a prerequisite to learning, but learning does not necessarily follow from attention.

I wonder if our incessant concern with attention has actually distracted (removed our attention) us from other concerns related to education.

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19 Responses to Attention and Education

  1. Royan Lee says:

    Jerrid, I think your critical view of ‘student engagement’ is vital. Thanks so much for the important role you play in te twittersphere.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Thanks Royan. There is likely a fine line between attention and mental engagement. We need that mental engagement piece to be what we talk about in learning. In many ways, the active mental engagement required for learning presupposes the attention piece.

  2. Scott McLeod says:

    Here’s your money quote, Jerrid: “Attention may be a prerequisite to learning, but learning does not necessarily follow from attention.”

    True, but you have to get attention first. Right now Khan’s succeeding at that, whereas critics are not. So essentially it’s time to put up or shut up, to play in the arena or go home. Which will critics choose?

    [And, like Royan, I appreciate your thoughtfulness.]

    • jerridkruse says:

      Thanks Scott, I agree, that line is of utmost importance. I think what dan said on twitter is difficult to parse – are we talking educating the public or educating students? I think what I wrote conflates the two (i wrote it quickly :)

      Each of these has important elements. My concern is that the public starts asking, “why aren’t my kids learning via video lecture?” Parents already throw fits when their child’s education doesn’t look exactly as theirs did (despite their own recognition of the limitations of their education!).

      To succinctly describe my teaching approach, I’ll simply call it “socratic”. Parents and students would try to tell me that this was not appropriate – until about 2 months in, when the students recognize how much and how deeply they were learning. Then they start criticizing the “lecture” teachers. I already have the past experience of students and parents to deal with as I try to implement effective teaching, now they can point to Khan and say “see, that’s how you should teach”. As if teaching effectively isn’t hard enough!

      Anyway, there is some more insight as to why I have alligned myself with the critics. :)

    • jerridkruse says:

      Oh, so i guess i’m choosing to expand the arena and maybe redefine what good teaching is at a fundamental level – and Khan doesn’t fit with that.

  3. I enjoyed this thought-provoking post Jerrid and think you have a point here. In one of my papers at the moment, there is a very ‘energetic’ debate raging on just this subject with challenging comments being made on both sides of the issue.

    I agree that we need to get the students’ attention, but am always conscious of where it then takes the ‘real’ learning. I’m looking forward to reading more comments on here. This would make a fascinating research proposal.

  4. Purav Patel says:

    To the author:

    You wrote “These are indications of attention, not of learning. Attention may be a prerequisite to learning, but learning does not necessarily follow from attention.”

    But this is not a strong argument against online learning (Khan Academy), because based on data from Khan’s pilot program in the Los Altos School District, learning (based on pass rates of remedial students) have skyrocketed. Khan’s intent currently is to ask more school districts to pilot his learning system. Based on this, he will collect more data on whether or not the videos/exercises work. Based on the success he reports on pass rates and standardized tests from his current pilot programs, success, naturally is to be expected in the new school districts. Notice that the intent of Khan is on collecting data in the form of students’ and teachers’ subjective responses, but also on more formal metrics like standardized tests (which he uses) and pass rates of remedial students. You correct in offering skepticism to a field (education) that deserves it, but fail to account for the methodical, somewhat scientific nature with which Khan intends to win over users. In this, I find Khan’s it-kind-of-works-now-so-I-will-find-some-more-data stance to be admirable. Only (future) results will support or demolish Khan’s academy, so I find your premature and overly incendiary post counterproductive. If you want to discredit the Academy, at least wait for multiple randomized, controlled experiments or studies. I will be waiting for them eagerly.

    • jerridkruse says:

      So helping kids succeed in a broken system is worthwhile? I don’t think so, but that isn’t really a point I want to note.

      Khan’s randomized tests will come out in his favor, but that doesn’t make KA worth implementing. Here is why:

      If we randomly assign 200 students to KA and 200 Students to traditional schools, KA will do at least as well, and maybe even better. All this means is that traditional school is crap. We’ve known that for a long time. Now, if Khan want to really put his money where his mouth is, randomly assign 200 students to KA and 200 students to a group of teachers whose practice fits well with already established educational research (most teachers do not fit this by the way). The teacher group will destroy KA.

      So, is KA as good or better than the current system? Sure. But the current system is NOT best practice.

  5. Mylène says:

    An interesting point. I’m going to start keeping closer tabs on where and how the word “attention” gets used — so far I notice it most in ads for electronic whiteboards. An idea to bounce off of you: maybe learning does necessarily follow from attention. It’s just that students may be learning “science is boring,” “math doesn’t work outside of math classrooms,” and “this teacher will give me a decent grade if I smile and nod.”

  6. Purav Patel says:

    For the record, I don’t think Khan Academy or any copycats should function as the primary method of education in a formal academic setting. Good teachers (if you can find them) are very important. I agree with jerridkruse in that an interactive Socratic dialogue would be a useful teaching model in many subjects. Current research on so-called “deliberate practice”, or learning by practicing and engaging with people has been shown to be very effective (google “NY time deliberate practice”). Nevertheless, the Khan Academy can be a valuable supplement to an engaging teacher in that it provides absent students with a useful resource. It could also help with exam review (for midterms, finals, and standardized tests). Further, it provides third-world students (who often lack knowledgable, credentialed teachers) with at least a basic foundation in their education. Khan Academy has even partnered with an organization that distributes its content on offline servers for people in the developing world to use.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Just so you know. I (jerridkruse) am the author of this post. :)

      I agree with you here. KA should not be the main source of instruction. In my mind, it should be like a textbook. There when needed as a resource. Not the main delivery method.

  7. Jeff Dicks says:


    I am not sure what we are seeing at Khan has as much to do with attention as it does accessibility and a belief that we are so busy. As I have listened to students who like Khan for review, being able to “rewind” the teacher on my time(after school hours) tells me there is learning. This is the transformation of education and if we don’t look at these things as possibilities and adapt, we may lose our place in education. This is a fast-moving train all about “choices” that people are having about how to get the information they want.

    Thanks for your bringing up the issue.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Jeff. What if, by adapting, we lose quality of education? I will not simply “go with the flow”. I see KA as having a place, just like I see textbooks having a place. But the dominant, but all to implicit, dialogue around KA is to further change education into a practice of acquiring facts rather than acquiring an ability to learn.

    • jerridkruse says:

      Jeff, one other point. If we want students to have a video to review from, why not do it ourselves. I did. Took me about ten minutes a day. I know what we talked about, I know what students struggled with, why do we outsource when we can better meet students needs ourselves. Here are some examples:

  8. Jeff Dicks says:


    Agreed, but some kids like other resources or want to go further. It is also good for teachers to see that there really is another way to solve a problem and set it up. I have teachers doing their own videos and I agree, they know what their students need. But those are great teachers. Why hold back students because schools can’t always get a great teacher. We agree that KA has it’s place but there is a fear that it replaces teachers. KA videos could be used to facilitate learning and not just factual acquisition.

  9. Ritchie says:

    Joining this discussion late but have to say as to: “So, is KA as good or better than the current system? Sure. But the current system is NOT best practice.”
    Wholeheartedly agree, but as a parent I have had to sit and watch the “current system” suck the enthusiasm for some (thank heavens not all) subjects out of my (and other) kids to the extent that they never want to study (fill in the blank) again.
    And these are good students.
    That is, simply put, criminal negligence on the part of their teachers. A lousy teacher in the classroom is no worse than Sal Khan annotating his lectures with side comments and opinion – if you don’t believe this is already going on wholesale visit a high school or college classroom.
    We owe it to our kids to not wait for the system to fix itself or be fixed by bureaucrats, and provide them with, or direct them to, the tools and skills the system is not. Students need to become good shoppers of resources rather than wait to be told what is best for them by their “teachers”.
    If KA stimulates their imaginations, shows them the learning possibilities, provides some learning, and threatens the status quo, then I say three cheers! Learning follows from attention. Things that are hard can also be fun.

    And BTW not all teachers, even great ones, will ever be good at making their own videos. That ‘s what open educational resources (like KA) are for.

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