The most common form of silence used in schools is that forced upon classes by teachers for the sake of concentration, for examinations, or sometimes for moments of reflection or prayer. The significant power of what has been called ‘positive silence’ then often gives way to a negative requirement to simply keep silent. Similarly the attention of students in school is often something teachers expect, demand, or coerce. The exponential growth of varied forms of entertainment and media devices from consoles to mobile handsets makes the problem of maintaining attention an urgent one for schools since many students have in their hands a window onto a world beyond the school.
Most institutions will react by prohibiting anything that appears to disrupt the educational experience. The problem here is that the average educational institution begins to look anachronistic and struggles to compete with the promise of Google for the attention of young minds which are often saturated by multiple channels of infotainment. Online bullying illustrates something of the problem. Schools need to understand that inhabiting the virtual world beyond the gates where power, authority, and social recognition operate in quite different ways brings up different forms of social interaction and opens new possibilities for uncommitted social experimentation where a mob mentality can operate unhindered.
It can seem as though we are losing the battle for the attention of our youth where they spend hours online playing games and socialising. With the proliferation of modern digital technologies coinciding with a sharp rise in attention deficit disorders we should ask what we could do to bring back the attention of our youth. Of course there is no simple answer here, but I suggest the issue is that we are misunderstanding the nature of attention.
The basic attitude of Western culture to education has been that it is about the development of freedom. Consequently, education involves a transition from the dependency of the infant to the autonomy of the grown-up. But there is a paradox at the heart of this process: how and when do we instil autonomy? The tension between the educator having, but also relinquishing, control in the process is expressed in the crises of youth: the periods of broken communication between teenagers and parents and teachers are nothing other than the young person’s search for autonomy.
There is, I suggest, a similar paradox with managing the attention of our youth. We can ask students to concentrate, to listen, or to pay attention, but we must consider that the student him or herself is not simply in control of their own attention. Attention is the delicate opening of life itself, the extraordinary witness of existence that each child and adult carries within them. Attention is better understood as a gift than as a commodity that we pay in return for the acquisition of knowledge.
Dr Lewin will be presenting a public lecture: “Behold: Silence and attention in education” at Oxford Learning Institute on 24th October 2013. For more information call Sally Jordan on 01865 286 811.