Think Slow In the Era of Speed?


Your focus is your reality. Yoda

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice—they won't hear you otherwise—"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

When the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote these lines in the late 1970s, he probably had no idea how accurately he would be able to predict one of the diagnoses of our times - a chronic decline in the ability to concentrate, and at the same time the development of an acute inability to maintain coherent attention (in Latin, attendere - to reach for something). Although in his text he juxtaposes the silence of reading with the noise of television, this - at the time perhaps still unique - counterpoint of calm and disturbance can be perceived incomparably more often today. It is a strange paradox - surprising disturbances have become established as the norm, in fact we routinely count on them; instantaneous shifts of attention from topic D to problem B to problem C to stimulus A are no longer something rare - perhaps it is enough to recall the events of an hour or two ago in a focused way for a moment, the graduated jumps of attention in a short time sequence come to mind without much effort. Surely, one can detect in Calvin's rendering a certain coarseness or outright crudeness with which unsolicited noise can distract the reader's attention from the novel. Today, we don't particularly pause when unwanted disturbances throw us off balance. We no longer regard them as something acutely painful. We can say that they are the norm of our days, perhaps even of a significant majority of our life moments - private, social, work and downright relaxing.

There are many ways and things to be distracted. They improve. The reasons for the decline in our ability to concentrate on a single piece of content can be seen in a number of circumstances: in the improvement of information transmission, in the communicative acceleration of information flow, in the density and variability of the stimuli available to us thanks to the technological and price accessibility of the Internet. All of this combined allows us to contact virtually anyone, at any time, from anywhere. Certainly, Italo Calvino could not have foreseen in his own time and to the full extent what consequences the technological shortening of the communication distance between the individual and the capacity-unlimited source of news about real events or fabricated fictions would bring. The inability to tell the difference between the two is another acute diagnosis of our times and arises precisely from the fact that we have created and perfected technologies that have seamlessly surpassed the communicative potential of humans. Finally, the Italian novelist, at the time of writing his most famous novel, could not possibly have foreseen what the moment would look like when, in the relative silence of the station of perception, we board the express train of irresistible disturbance.

It turns out that a return from the wild ride in the world of information rushes, unsolicited signals and communication stimuli is impossible - just as after the invention of writing it was impossible to step back across the threshold separating the prehistoric and historical eras. Today, we are crossing a new threshold: we are leaving a world in which information and communication technologies existed, but the functioning of society was determined in the first place by the technologies of production. At the same time, we are entering a world that is intrinsically dependent on information and communication technologies. Without them, the functioning of society is no longer conceivable - neither in its basic definitions nor in its fine details. In short: information and communication technologies may have played a part in the management of human lives in the past, but they must do so today. Moreover - in rapidly improving forms and affecting almost every dimension of our interaction in and with the world. It is in such a fast, noisy, restless, shifting, frictionless, irresistibly exciting and perpetually disruptive digital universe that we perform pedagogically, educate and nurture. And most importantly - we compete for attention.

Finding effective ways to keep students' attention is an old matter. It is already implicit in the postulates of J. A. Comenius, who centuries ago described the logic of the learning journey - from the senses to reason, from the near to the distant, from the simple to the complex; let us recall on this occasion that this logic is based only on the observed learning processes. We are neither the first nor the last to seek answers to old questions: How can we effectively generate a sustained interest in cognition in pupils? What do we do to stimulate the need to undertake intellectual adventures? How to get pupils to be intrigued by chemical processes, to be attracted to history problems, to be drawn to physical experiments or to quality literary works? How can the focused perception that so fundamentally underpins both the process and the results of learning be fostered in school? Although these are old questions, their timelessness and urgency are enriched in our era by a new context: the unprecedented spread of information and communication technologies. At least one new question has emerged from this new context: How does one successfully compete for the attention of the young in the role of educator at a time when it has become a conveniently marketable commodity? Against the backdrop of recent findings from the neurosciences, one more question can be added: What to do, then, if we know that the ability to persist in purposeful activity is biochemical in nature and that the chances of sustaining perceptually and thought-coherent concentration are dramatically diminished by every email, every like, every social media alert, or every win in an entertainment simulation?

The matter is not at all simple, and simple or old solutions do not usually work for new, complex problems. Information and communication technologies have indeed entered our private and professional lives, influencing our relationships in them, creating a new environment for them, but we should not lose sight of at least two features that define us as a biological species: we are a social species, i.e. we have a structured set of well-developed tools of cooperation that enable us to adapt to new conditions; what makes us fundamentally different from other biological species is the human mind, which is not dependent on immediate stimuli, but is able to deal with what has happened and what could happen. New technologies in the field of information and communication affect these typically human qualities, but they do not eliminate them - schoolchildren still live and learn to live in a wide variety of relationships and rules (interpersonal, cultural, communicative - according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, an individual is able to maintain and develop relationships with approximately one hundred and fifty people), they are still able to think independently of the current situation, i.e. by being able to separate the content of the mind from the current sensory stimuli (this is confirmed, for example, by the phenomenon of the so-called wandering thinking).

Without attention focused on one topic or one problem, one cannot count on success in acquiring knowledge or solving problems, let alone developing cognitive control (consciously directing one's own thoughts). Strategic weight must therefore be given - both at school level and throughout the education system - to the digital environment, which can influence learning in ways that are both significantly positive and significantly negative. At the heart of the matter, then, it is about helping pupils to strengthen their resilience to the short-term pleasure of distraction (the world must wait, because now I am learning, now I am looking for a solution, now I am writing, still creating), while at the same time creating situations in which the results of focused activity will reinforce a long-term commitment to personal and social success (it was hard, but I thought it through, I did it, I understood it, I am getting better at it, I know how to learn). To put it simplistically and biochemically: it is essential to individually weaken the reliance on dopamine and socially strengthen the need for serotonin. At the systemic level and at the level of individual schools, it will be a matter of concentrating on the need to make thoughtful decisions about how to regulate information and communication technologies in learning processes in a purposeful way, without allowing slow-thinking pupils to drift into a world of quick affects.

Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


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