The Attention Industry Vs Today’s Classroom

A few weeks ago on National Radio, I caught Columbia University professor Tim Wu discussing the “Attention Industry” which he unpacks in his new book The Attention Merchants. He spoke about how our attention is a business – media companies, the
the-attention-merchantsentertainment industry, politics and just about everyone in the public sphere all want our attention. What is new for today’s society is the volume of competition and the ubiquity. There has never been so much competition for people’s attention with hundreds of things trying to grab our attention all day. As Wu point it: “It’s like we’re in a carnival non-stop all day”.

The implications of these ideas impact education. Educators too are in the attention business. We are competing for the attention of our students. When we consider the global competition for attention, can a teacher really be angry about a student who succumbs to click bait and ends up off task for a few minutes? What is the appropriate response when a student is taken away from the class discussion by a notification coming from their pocket?

I feel educators need to embrace being part of the attention business. The ubiquity of technology and the competition for attention that comes with it is part of the modern world and our students need support to navigate it. Wu says “the presence of all those technologies in our lives is driven by this business model and its appetite for more and more of our time.” Students need to be conscious consumers in this market and make autonomous decisions to contribute effectively. We have to be realistic about the world our students are navigating and make it transparent that we are also navigating it alongside them.

There’s deeper thinking to be done around the biological impact that the attention industry is having; but in the meantime, I think our focus should be nurturing agency and self-directed skillsets and focusing on the front half of the NZ curriculum.

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