de Castell’s and Jenson’s analysis of the attentional economy in the context of education in their 2004 essay, “Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning,” offers important insights into the contemporary challenge educators face in attracting and retaining the attention of their students. While the idea that students might not be paying attention in school hardly seems like a new phenomenon, de Castell and Jenson suggest that we are witnessing a new challenge created by both political and technological changes in conditions under which information and knowledge is organized in schools. Part of this is driven by a shift to learner-centred or contructivist approaches to education wherein the position of the student is more centrally the focus of teaching efforts. Another part is driven by technological changes particularly in terms of the broad range multimodal tools and networked communications environments within which students have grown up. Acording to de Castell’s and Jenson, in the contemporary world, the
“school’s traditional forms of authority for commanding student attention, along “unimodal,” text-based lines, offer diminishing returns to both teachers and students….the technologically supported transformations of both individual and collective attentional structures toward multimodality and multitasking impacts most profoundly on youth, who have never known the text-bound world from which their elders have come.” (p. 383)
From the perspective of those who grew up with and gained their authority within unimodal, text-based practices, these multimodal and multitasking youth lack essential skills and perhaps appropriate respect for the sanctioned knowledge defined by the school’s curriculum. In short, they don’t pay attention to what educators are trying to teach them.
At the same time as their attention is attenuating in relation to classroom attention, youth have a growing fixation and enthusiasm for the types of learning that can be found in games. de Castell and Jenson recognize the threat that such games potentially pose (or seem to pose) to traditional cultural institutions like schools and homes. As they indicate, with the pervasiveness of digital environments in all aspects of our lives, despite the fact that parents and youth live in the same physical spaces, they “inhabit different worlds, speak in new languages, write in new forms, and communicate using media in ways and for purposes their parents can scarcely comprehend” (pp. 384-385). This dichotomy exists, too, for teachers and students, with disastrous results in terms of the efficacy and engagement of educational practice. In a fashion that recalls McLuhan’s own attitudes concerning the need to critical study the transformations of media (even though he did not personally advocate or endorse these changes), de Castell and Jenson emphasize that the study of gaming as a site for learning is critically important:
Understandable as the repudiation of computer gaming may be, the benefits to education of engaging with an learning from commercial gaming’s phenomenal success, popularity, and its effectiveness as a learning environment, might far outweigh the benefits of attempting myopically to ignore or suppress it – something that, in any case, is unlikely to succeed in the long term. (p. 385)
While, indeed, for most parents and teachers, “playing is the opposite of school” (p. 385) there are vital things that we need to better understand concerning the reconfiguration of the attentional economy as a consequence of technological change. Ignoring the presence of games, or merely categorizing them as a waste of time overlooks potential lessons educators can learn from the engagement and full attention that youth give to these games. As de Castelle an Jenson put it
Within the environment of a computer game, the mobilization of players’ attention and intelligence through interactive game play can encompass the acquisition of motor and perceptual skills, the completion of increasingly complex interlinked tasks, the learning and systematic pursuit of game-based narrative structures, the internalization and enactment of appopriate affect, and a range of other attendant forms and conditions of learning. (p. 396)
Surely it is time for educators and the educational system more broadly, to get into the game.
de Castell, S. and Jenson, J. (2004). Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning. Educational Theory, 54, p381-397.