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If you ever have to ask someone if they’re paying attention, the answer is likely to be “no,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t doing something important.

Schooling puts a lot of stock in “attention” as a key to learning. In schools like the KIPP charters, attention is so important that things like sitting up and tracking the speaker are mandatory behaviors and teachers are instructed to give real-time corrections to students who do things like rest their chins on their hands.

Of course chin-on-hand is the iconic pose of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” a solitary figure meant to embody deep contemplation.

But thinking is largely invisible while also being unknowable. We don’t know if Rodin’s Thinker is contemplating the state of humankind or wondering if that roast lamb he had for lunch tasted a little off.

So never mind thinking, let’s focus on “attention,” or not attention so much as the performance of attention which can be tracked and measured. In fact, it’s so trackable and measurable, a company called LCA Learning has created a software program called Nestor that will use “artificial intelligence and facial analysis to determine whether students are paying attention in class.”

As reported at The Verge, Nestor, “uses students’ webcams to analyze eye movements and facial expressions and determine whether students are paying attention to a video lecture.” The developers are hoping to eventually extend the software into the live classroom where the software could send “real-time notifications to students whenever they’re not paying attention.”

The article isn’t clear if the reminder will come via electric shock or some other method.

Marcel Saucet, founder of LCA Learning hopes Nestor can go further, acting as a kind of artificial intelligence that would, for example, know a student’s calendar and track online behavior, and then suggesting that it might be better to study than watch YouTube videos. 

You will forgive me for checking to make sure The Verge was not an offshoot of The Onion because I honestly thought Nestor was a put on, but no, this is something apparently serious people are working on.

I am not reflexively anti technology, but I must question technology that purports to solve problems that don’t need solving. While learning may be something of a “black box,” in that there is a mystery to exactly what is going on when it happens, we actually know quite a bit about atmospheres that are conducive to learning.

Attention, it turns out, is not nearly as important as curiosity, the same way that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation.

If you give someone an interesting problem to solve, attention doesn’t seem to be an issue. If they are solving the problem in order to satisfy their own curiosities, they will learn much more and work much longer than trying to meet a standard set by a teacher.

Strategies like those used at KIPP and other so-called “no excuses” schools are only necessary because school itself is a rather grim march through proficiencies, rather than a place in which to practice and engage curiosities.

It ain’t rocket science, but it is difficult to measure, and so things that can be measured increase in importance. I can’t see what’s happening inside your head, but I can tell if you’re sitting up straight so that becomes important in and of itself. Soon, learning is reduced to a series of acts of compliance.

Never mind that daydreaming – in the manner of Rodin’s Thinker – may indeed be a key to learning

And taking mental breaks are known to greatly enhance both creativity and problem solving

So much energy in education, like this Nestor thing, seems dedicated to making sure students walk a particular path, but learning and discovery only happen when we have the space to wander

Next time a student doesn’t appear to be paying attention, leave them alone. They may be having their most important learning experience of the day.



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