When we don’t pay attention, learning and relationships suffer

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Learning requires attention. It only occurs when we are fully present. Understanding and learning require close attention to the development of ideas, particularly if those ideas are complex or nuanced.

Relationships also require attention. When we are not paying attention, we miss the subtleties of meaning and emotion.

Engagement is a common synonym for attention. Another is mindfulness.

Unfortunately, many people believe that it is possible to multitask—that is, to pay attention to an idea, to people, or to experiences while simultaneously paying attention to something else.

In fact, it’s not possible to pay attention to two things at the same time. While we can rapidly shift our attention back and forth, we often do so at a cost.

If the things to which we are attending are procedural (for instance, driving a car on familiar road), that cost may be minimal.

But when we multitask complex or unpredictable tasks (driving a car when an unexpected, dangerous situation suddenly arises), our performance drops and our understanding suffers. And when multitasking is habitual, our cognitive skills atrophy.

In addition, when people are one of the things we multitask, there is a cost to those relationships.

Pay close attention by:

Acknowledging that multitasking affects our understanding, our learning, and/or our relationships.

Turning away from computer screens or other distracting devices to give our undivided attention to the human beings in our presence.

Removing devices from view at learning events and meetings where important ideas are being considered and decisions made, with the exception of those devices whose use is closely aligned with the purposes of the meeting. Stowing devices is not only a matter of basic courtesy to those who are speaking and to the subject at hand, but is essential to professional learning and making sound decisions. (Devices placed on one’s lap for easy viewing are not stowed.)

Just as texting while driving is distracted driving, texting, tweeting, and emailing in meetings instead of paying close attention to the subject at hand and the people in front of us could appropriately be labeled “distracted learning,” “distracted decision-making,” and “distracted relationships.”

The cost of such distractions, unfortunately, are ultimately born by students and the school community.

2 Responses to “When we don’t pay attention, learning and relationships suffer”


  1. 1 Mary Valentine March 12, 2013 at 9:32 am

    If relationships are so important to our learning, why are our state leaders destroying strong relationships by coming into schools and firing all of the staff, pulling the rug out from under our students?

    • 2 Dennis Sparks March 12, 2013 at 10:03 am

      I am assuming that that is a rhetorical question, Mary. If not, I think you probably have a far better answer than I do.


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