Can I have your attention?

The belief in attention spans is another obstacle to improving learning with computers.

Businesses and schools ought to think about that. Instructors who believe in attention spans usually look for ways to hold attention rather than for ways to create interest.

The difference is enormous. Trying to hold attention in order to control behavior and to keep students on task can easily lead to unnecessary use of entertainment, incentives and threats — and shallow use of computer technology.

I switched over to the field of human learning and memory after my miserable first two years of classroom teaching. I was desperate to know how learning happens. In the years that followed I searched in vain for the legendary attention span. But I noticed that attention is greatly affected by energy level, knowledge base, distractions, preferences and the quality of the learning environment.

In other words, attention expands with interest.

Businesses and schools ought to think about that. Normal people respond to interesting content. So we need to know what creates interest because attention naturally follows it.

Do you play a role in other people’s learning? Here are four critical components of interesting learning environments.

Meaningful content. Make subject matter relevant to the student. Many of us educators start out thinking we get to call the shots. I’m the teacher, and you will do what I say because I’m the teacher. That’s immature hogwash.

Momentum. Keep things moving in noticeable increments, but don’t think in terms of “We have to cover all this material.” Momentum that helps create interest leaves room for interaction with the subject matter and for grasping it.

While most people think self-paced learning is the best thing since apple pie, a supervised pace is much smarter when available. It strengthens comprehension and performance by preventing repetitive errors.

Participation. Humans need to be involved in learning, or they don’t really learn. They just accumulate information for a while. Subject matter can be highly interactive in the mind. Even if you’re teaching how to shoot hoops, a substantial amount of cognitive interaction can occur in the minds of an entire team sitting on the bench.

Students who watch someone working out a math problem on a white board can learn the process exactly as well as the student who is physically writing out the solution. Writing does not necessarily have an effect on learning or memory.

The mental interaction is the big deal. A paralyzed student can excel at the same challenges if instruction is designed with adequate mental interaction and support.

Reachable goal. It’s nice to tell a class to shoot for the stars and that they can do anything they put their mind to, but it’s not true. The NCAA reminds athletes that very few will make it to the top because space is severely limited.

Interesting learning climates that stand the test of time build toward reachable goals that the whole class can reach — although everyone might not need to set the same goal.

In summary, designing for interest is not the same as trying to hold attention with computer technology.

As a columnist for a niche of the IT world, I watch technology change so fast that even the biggest companies in the world can’t keep up with it.

Much of what students do with computers in school is too basic to plug into the business world by the time they graduate.

However, understanding learning climates will make investments in computer technology more worthwhile.

Max T. Russell writes for the international business intelligence and nonprofit communities. Send comments to