|Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash|
The paradox of today's society is that we are both more connected than ever before and at the same time becoming increasingly disconnected from each other and even ourselves as we drown in a flood of information, advertising, entertainment and chatter. The torrent never stops and prevents us from stopping to reflect or question what is going on and there is growing interest in finding strategies to counter this threat. These strategies are an integral part of the so-called 21st century literacies including source criticism, information literacy, media literacy, data literacy and network literacy.
The concept attention literacy caught my attention in an article by Howard Rheingold, Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies (Educause Review, vol. 45, no. 5), back in 2010. He described five key social media literacies: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness and critical consumption. The issue of attention was mostly about the digital distractions that his students were subjected to in class and he proposed establishing oases of offline interaction when all focus would be on class discussion or deeper reading. The ability to switch between online and offline was the core of attention literacy.
Since then attention literacy has expanded and is discussed in a new article by Mark Pegrum and Agnieszka Palalas in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, Attentional literacy as a new literacy: Helping students deal with digital disarray. They outline the challenge presented by the concept of digital disarray: the effects of today's information overload and the algorithm-controlled digital landscape that dominates our lives. They describe three components of digital disarray:
- digital distraction is the overwhelming volume of news, updates, entertainment and social interaction that compete for our attention every day and often prevent us from focusing on any specific task.
- digital disorder represents the abundance of misleading information, alternatives realities and conspiracy theories and how they have divided society on increasingly polarised tribal lines.
- digital disconnection represents a growing disconnection between people with a growing trust in dangerous stereotypes and a lack of curiosity. People can have a strong online presence but lack interpersonal skills and an ability to connect with others outside their own sphere. The result perhaps of people being trapped in their own filter bubbles.
Many "new" literacies have been described in recent years (evidently an Irish review of the field identified 100 different models of digital literacies, see Brown 2017) but the authors suggest that attention literacy is an overarching literacy and a strategy to combat this notion of digital disarray. Attention is therefore a macroliteracy.
Arguing that today’s growing focus on digital literacies in education already serves as a partial response to digital disarray, this evidence-based position paper proposes the concept of attentional literacy as a macroliteracy which interweaves elements of now established literacies with the emerging educational discourse of mindfulness.Through attentional literacy, students may gain awareness of how to focus their attention intentionally on the self, relationships with others, and the informational environment, resulting in a more considered approach to learning coupled with an appreciation of multiple shifting perspectives.
Learning to focus and filter out the digital distractions involves not simply switching off your digital devices but learning to concentrate your mind on one task and being able to approach a topic without preconceptions and biases. The authors see mindfulness as a key to developing this skill and suggest integrating elements of this in education. Their working definition of mindfulness is given as the mental capacity to pay attention intentionally and non-judgmentally to an object of choice while remaining aware of changing experiences and contexts. Whether or not the concept of mindfulness is the answer here, there is a case for more focus on rediscovering the benefits of silence, quiet reflection, deep reading and simply switching off the distractions.
The problem is that most university courses today focus on efficiency and demands to fulfill learning outcomes as quickly as possible. Students want to earn their credits and get their qualifications and this leaves little time for a new kind of slow learning. True lifelong learning is a slow process and insights often take years to develop. We need to create more space for reflection and develop strategies for fostering deeper learning. Whether you call this mindfulness or something else we need to learn to step away from the torrent of distractions and think more about where we want to go.