What would you say if when you walked into the gym the trainer said, “you’re 35 years old you should be able to press 70 lbs.”? Age would be an absurd basis for this expectation. Experience and physical health is the correct basis for estimating how much you can handle. So why do we expect children to magically go from playing at daycare to sitting at a desk and paying attention for long periods of time?
Would you walk into the gym and start pressing 200 lbs.? Of course not! You start with what you can handle and learn how to properly handle the weights, only then do you work on strengthening yourself by increasing the load in small increments. It will take months or even years to work up to handling 10 times the load you began with.
Concentration also must be learned and can be cultivated and strengthened. It begins with awareness of where your attention is at. If you have been practicing your ATMs then you are probably good at this. The next step is learning how to focus your attention and tune out unnecessary distractions. Establish a reasonable amount of time to concentrate and set a timer for that amount of time. If you find yourself losing focus tell the unwanted thought “thanks for stopping by, now is not a good time, I’ll catchup with you later.” And then reset your timer and start again. If you keep losing focus you may have set the bar too high so switch for a smaller amount of time. Lastly, sustain your attention for increasing lengths of time.
What should you concentrate on? In the classroom there may not be a choice, but as an adult you are in charge. The challenge here is making sure that in fact you are in charge. Think of your mind like an untamed stallion, if you don’t take charge and train it then you may or may not end up at your desired destination for this untamed stallion (your thoughts) is more likely to gallop off on a wild ride. You want to discipline your mind. Choose your focus. Select a topic and immerse yourself in it totally, to the exclusion of all else. Intellectual purity would be when you focus on clarifying ideas and filter truth from falsehood. This is very important, for as we have discussed previously, if a lie is repeated often enough you come to believe it (see “Are You A Fly?”). You may want to explore, ‘I have been called “lazy”, am I really lazy or does the person just not appreciate that I am trying my best and my best is not their best but I am better at this other thing than they are.’ Perhaps you want to explore some principles or rules e.g. they say children must learn…. Who says? Is this truth? Was it useful in the past but perhaps no longer useful as the world has changed? Focusing on what you want is the first step in getting what you want. Focusing is choosing the end goal so that you can map your route to get there. Once you start your journey know that the more detours you take, no matter how scenic, the longer it will take you to reach your destination.
The bad news is that as a society we have been trained to take detours, to decrease our attention span. We have become accustomed to instant gratification and have lost patience. The experts know this, that is why the length of commercials has gradually decreased from 1 minute to 15 seconds. It is also why during the show the camera jumps around, sometimes at a dizzying pace. It’s why a 30 or 45-minute class period has to be broken up into 3 smaller lessons. While all of this makes it more challenging to build concentration it is still possible with discipline and effort.
How long can you concentrate for? Are you expecting your students to focus better than you do?