Clyde Street

Learning, Teaching, Performing

Attention and Learning


This post about attention and learning started with some ideas stimulated by Noah Charney‘s novel The Art Thief (2007).

I liked his suggestion that “logic and observation are universal tools … that no one realises they have.” In the novel he points out that students in the Yale University Medical School are required to visit the Yale Centre for British Art. This post from earlier this year provides the non-fiction account of this relationship.(This is a post from 2006. See too this article (2001) on the use of fine art to enhance visual diagnostic skills and this link to data from the study.)

All first-year students at the School of Medicine are required to take the innovative class, which was developed by Yale medical school faculty member Dr. Irwin Braverman and Linda Friedlaender, curator of education at the Yale Center for British Art, which houses the world’s largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.

Braverman and other experts believe that, in an age when physicians rely heavily on high-tech imaging and tests, the art of detailed, careful observation is getting short shrift. But detecting small details can make all the difference in coming up with accurate diagnoses, believes the Yale faculty member.

Braverman began trying to find a way to increase observational skills of medical school students at around the same time that Friedlaender became frustrated with the continued misdiagnosis of a close friend. They happened to meet at a gathering and began laying the groundwork for the class, which makes the most of the museum’s collection by asking medical students to “diagnose” individuals portrayed in its artworks.

Their work brought to mind Max Lucado‘s observation that “to lead the orchestra, you have to turn your back on the crowd”. The combination of Noah Charney’s fiction and the real world work going on at Yale prompted me to think about attention and learning.

I am working through some of my ideas about feedforward and bandwidth.  This week a variety of sources amplified my interest. It started with a misplaced Google enquiry that led me to this discussion of the use of video in a hospital setting (and these citations).

I found John Bordeaux‘s post about personalised learning. John points out that:

  • You are designed to work with incomplete information.
  • You resolve ambiguous input data based on how you believe the world works.

He concludes that “we can provide a system that adapts to the individual minds in our care at every stage.  The science leaves us no option here – ‘personalized learning,’ by whatever name, is a central design principle for a transformed education system.” Some of these issues were raised by Graham Attwell in his post about virtual learning environments and in this post about digital identities.

Just after reading John’s blog post I came across the BrainBoard visualisation from Second Life shared by Jeff Lowe on Flickr.

This led me to think about immersive learning and the possibilities created by virtual spaces. Erica and Sam Driver explore some of these ideas in their post about what makes a virtual environment immersive. They have a detailed table in that post that summarises the immersiveness continuum in which they characterise low and high immersiveness in a variety of factors including graphics, avatars, 3D environment, ability to control viewpoint, physics, size of display, haptics, voice, collaboration and interactivity.

This post about 3D video added to my interest in the attention and learning possibilities available in 3D environments.

It was a short journey from immersive spaces to a link I received about an interactive video platform.

I think this approach has enormous potential and reminded me of the Us Mob web site designed by Katalyst and their more recent Burn site. I think there are some wonderful opportunities available for attention and learning in these approaches and in the function of such innovations as Mag+ (Vimeo link).

And then I found IdeaPaint!

Whilst moving across web posts, I found a post about presentation that discussed the role of storytelling. This video in the post encouraged me to think about how young you can be to understand and share a story. This is the message from the original film:

“One game.  If we played ‘em ten times, they might win nine.  But not this game…not tonight.  Tonight, we skate with them.  Tonight, we stay with them, and we shut them down because we can!  Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world.  You were born to be hockey players – every one of you.  You were meant to be here tonight.  This is your time.  Their time is done.  It’s over.  This is your time.  Now go out there and take it.”

This is a four year old’s take on the message:

This is the link to Kurt Russell’s version.

The YouTube session set me up for an exploration of story telling and the use of narrative. By coincidence one of the Bush Telegraph programs on Radio National discussed Graham Seal‘s new book Great Australian Stories-legends, yarns and tall tales. This set me of thinking about the role storying plays in attention and learning and how many learning environments are a rich source for stories.

From stories I moved on to a post about pictures by John Medina. John points out the impact pictures have on memory (pictorial superiority effect) and he has some great points to make about text:

The inefficiency of text has received particular attention. One of the reasons that text is less capable than pictures is that the brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. Data clearly show that a word is unreadable unless the brain can separately identify simple features in the letters. Instead of words, we see complex little art-museum masterpieces, with hundreds of features embedded in hundreds of letters. Like an art junkie, we linger at each feature, rigorously and independently verifying it before moving to the next. The finding has broad implications for reading efficiency. Reading creates a bottleneck. My text chokes you, not because my text is not enough like pictures but because my text is too much like pictures. To our cortex, unnervingly, there is no such thing as words.

John’s discussion of pictures is one of his twelve brain rules. His post led me to a discussion of mind over matter in the classroom and the role that visualisation plays in learning. This led me to Stephen Kosslyn‘s work and his Group Brain project with Richard Hackman.  (I liked this paper about using visual images to improve comprehension too.)

Reading about the Group Brain project took me back to Carl Wieman‘s work as an educator. I listened to a Radio National program about his thoughts on teaching methodology and peer instruction. This discussion led me to Eric Mazur‘s work:

It’s the middle of a class period and two hundred students aren’t listening to the instructor. Instead, they’re engaged in over fifty simultaneous conversations with their neighbors. This probably sounds like a disaster to many teachers. But it’s actually a rousing success: the students are discussing a question which challenges them to think about the material and justify their reasoning to their classmates.

What this wayfinding approach led me to this week was an incredibly rich set of resources around attention and learning. As the week came to a close mention of journalism as effective surprise in an ABC Radio interview with Mark Scott encouraged me to think even more about the learning opportunities skilled teachers and coaches construct. J S Bruner points out that humans tend to respond with “effective surprise” to concepts and artifacts that take familiar things and rearrange them in new ways.  Some observers discuss a chaordic model of change (where chaos and order overlap) and suggest that the most fertile territory for innovation is in the boundary zone, where unlike things co-mingle.

I liked Ursula Lucas‘s (2006) discussion of being pulled up short in this context. She notes in a discussion of teaching that “moments of surprise have two aspects. Firstly, they represent moments when the lecturer is “pulled up short” and recognises the unexpected impact of a learning activity and is propelled into reflection. Secondly, they represent moments when students are “pulled up short” and are propelled into questioning taken-for-granted assumptions about themselves and the subject.”

By the end of the week of exploring attention and learning I realised I still had to look at:

A J Cropley’s ideas about creativity and cognition.

David Hargreaves’ thoughts about conversive trauma.

Learning without limits

Errorless learning

The ABC of XYZ: understanding the global generations


The aim of this blog post is to share these ideas about attention and learning and to support explorations in personalised teaching, coaching and learning. Fortunately I did not lose a lot of sleep over this post. Researching attention and learning is a wonderful way to ensure high quality of sleep. But just when it is safe to go to bed you might want to think about the attention and learning possibilities of sleep, dreams and nightmares. Richard Stickgold‘s work and Antti Revonsuo‘s research open up fascinating opportunities to explore the learning possibilities of dreams and nightmares.

Photo Credits

Primer in the Classroom

Irwin Braverman and Linda Friedlaender

Aerial move

Open Air Schooling

Horns of a dilemma

Author: Keith Lyons

Clyde Street has been my WordPress blog since June 2008. I write about learning, teaching and performing.

5 thoughts on “Attention and Learning

  1. Keith,

    Great post. You did a great job gathering a number of great posts about attention and learning. I don’t think enough people realize the importance of keeping an audience’s attention to encourage learning and recall. And of course, thanks for including my blog post.

  2. Jon

    Thank you for visiting this post. Your post was a catalyst for my thinking.


  3. Pingback: Sleeping, Dreaming, Learning « Clyde Street

  4. Like to discuss synergy between your blogging and mine. I focus on tech for autism, with a concentration on video modeling, video-based instructin and HCI.

  5. Michael

    Thank you for visiting my blog post. I have written to you by email.

    Best wishes


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