Continuous Partial Attention

Thursday, 23 Feb 2023

I had dinner in the holidays with close friends. We arrived at the restaurant at 7pm and left at 9.45pm coinciding exactly with a family that sat next to us on the adjacent table. I had a direct line of vision to this family the whole evening and (unfortunately) they became my case study for what is going wrong. I became more and more absorbed in what I was witnessing – the decline of civilised family discourse starting with this family! The father looked at his mobile phone the whole time and never communicated with his two children other than to say to one: “You said you’d eat the ice-cream.” The young boy was trying all evening to get the father’s attention. The mother was not much better as she too was fully absorbed on her phone. Occasionally she would try to chat to the kids but the gesture was perfunctory. At one stage, the kids sat staring out of the window for a long time having succumbed to the realisation that gaining the parents’ attention was a lost cause. It was devastating. Here was another lost opportunity to strengthen the family bonds, to connect and share and commune over a meal. Remember point 6 that I mentioned at Grade evening? 

Teach them to make their table an altar – to approach food with an attitude of moderation, celebration and sanctification. 

All you have to do today is look around and you'll see the six month old baby, the two year old in the shopping trolley, the 5 year old on the chair …….. with an iPad. Look around as you walk through the park to see a mother walking with baby in pram scrolling through the phone or even breastfeeding ‘multitasking’ on the phone when the gaze of a mother and the silent communication that takes place is the most important and precious occasion that builds connection.  

Professor Maryanne Wolf recently said that we are witnessing the most focused attention deprived species in history because they have a constant hyperstimulation going on. When these young people get off the screen they say two words: “I’m bored” - and in response the unsuspecting parent gives the child another dopamine lollipop. 

We are raising a generation of children to have ‘continuous partial attention’ (Linda Stone) the generation with attention spans of 3-5 seconds - the ones who are switching their attention no less than 27 times an hour among their various devices or apps or whatever they're using for a generation of distracted thinkers. We don't err (she says) with what we innovate; we err when we innovate without attention to what it disrupts or diminishes and that's a fundamental question right now.

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — continuously. It is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.

Even in small doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively. In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we’re inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless.

Being an Apple Distinguished School means we have a far more insightful way of understanding how and when to use technology for learning. No one would propose an abolitionist approach because like it or not, our children need to know its creative and learning potential. But its use must not diminish or disrupt our functioning. As I come to the end of my tenure, I am often asked what would be my parting message. There would be a few, but high on the list would be – keep kids off phones and devices for many years. Allow their brains to develop as evolution has dictated. Talk with (not to) your kids on every occasion. There could be no greater benefit to their cognitive development. 

I wished I could have said something to the family sitting next to me at dinner but for fear of being told where to go, I retreated knowing that it will be the next generation of teachers who will be dealing with the consequences of the child’s lost connections. 

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