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Art of attention & mindfulness

Molly Worthen’s “Lecture me. Really” [NYTimes 18Oct2015] brought back several scenes and memories of my past as I read it and laughed aloud. Some of these memories had been forgotten until this article, but others have never left my classroom or observation.

My first memory was during my 1st year of college in NY. I was in an algebra class and the professor had to repeat what he said every single day and students would come to class the next day and ask the same question as the day before and the before that day. I was extremely shy, never spoke, and sat at the front of the class never turning my head to see who was there or who wasn’t. Except that day when I blurted out “why can’t you all take notes so you don’t have to ask the same question everyday?” The professor was visibly shocked, said nothing, and a smile slipped out from his tired lecturing, interrupted lips.

Another time, I remember was when I’d chaperoned some 3rd or 4th graders to the Met museum who kept interrupting the guide from giving her talk on the exhibitions we had gone to see.  Hands popped up, some waving with great urgency, like a flag fluttering in a strong wind in the middle of the guide’s sentence or thought, every minute or two, or after 2 words or just before she finished her sentence. Finding it odd after a few times, I asked the teacher why she wasn’t asking them to ask questions after the guide’s talk before asking their own questions. She smiled tight-lipped saying “oh! That’s no problem!” Sometimes the guide tried to finish her poor sentence and at other times she just buckled and gave in to the child’s question only to be told by some students “oh! I forgot what I was going to ask!” Not only did the child not have a question, but often the guide lost her train of thought and had to start over her sentence or thought.

This impatience [both mine and the kids’] brought me back to my elementary school years when we were taught to wait until the teacher finished speaking to ask questions. We learnt early to let someone finish speaking before asking questions because that person/ teacher or guide may very well cover your question during her/his lecture. The same happened in secondary school and even at university.

I also remember sitting in amphitheaters listening to psych lectures or other subjects at NYU or SUNY Stonybrook where questions formed in your mind, and you had to jot them down.  I remember also being at a Parisian university and being lectured for hours, taking notes upon notes and coming back to New York with more cahiers remplis and books in my suitcase than anything else.

Today, as a professor I see remnants of those third graders in young and older adults when, in the middle of a very important lesson, students’ hands pop up to ask questions. And although asking questions is what I encourage, I’d rather they occur after I’ve explained something important, and not during. Worse, no one takes notes except foreigners who are conditioned to do that, the same ones who perform well in my tests and write great compositions. Most students forget because they have no notes. They have nothing to revise, and the quick, constant buzz of technology doesn’t not help them in the remembering process nor does it deter them from asking the same questions over and over, like my algebra classmates. I tell every class about the power of taking notes and how it shapes the mind, but it is difficult as they haven’t been taught to think or act like that.

One aspect of American culture I like is the freedom to discuss ideas – in my own class and elsewhere. Great things are learnt from other’s ideas, and my students have taught me lots over the years and it’s fascinating to see their process of thinking when an idea is launched. Active learning, student-led discussions and group work is a platform for questioning and learning, but waiting before asking a question still trumps. My British and French education did not make space for such learning – American style- in quite the same way. I thought that the French way of learning: lectures in great big amphitheaters and travaux dirigés in smaller classrooms was better than my own British education, because students could talk if they wanted, although they didn’t for the most part. But the option was there. Instead, we took more notes from the TD professor. We waited until we wrote our critical papers to ‘ask questions’ and argue our ideas. We did this based only on the notes we’d taken in class and from our own input. I remember one of my professors in TD expressing aloud his shock that “the American” [ I was clearly not French] was capable of thought at the end of the term because my paper was mentioned in class and he didn’t know whoso paper it was.

The art of attention, the crucial first step in critical thinking have always been prized in the French and British way of teaching and learning. It’s extremely useful in higher ed. How else can one build an argument if building blocks are lacking? If we abandon the lecture format to please students we are doing them a great disservice. Lecture and listening gives them strong foundations.

If we don’t give them platforms for learning and listening their aborted attention span and interrupted thoughts evident in such phrases as ” what’s your point?” or “get to the point” will continue. And the urgency to ask questions or talk and say something overtakes any other learning as though the journey and art of discussing and arriving to conclusions is irrelevant. It is not. Knowing when to be silent and when to speak is what conversing and listening is about. It is what makes learning constantly fascinating. Knee-jerk reactions are not leading to the mastery of critical thinking or synthesizing of info to increase knowledge, vocabulary, and listening.  While give and take is to be considered in the learning process, the vogue of active learning cannot blind us from seeing how important the ancient method of teaching and listening still remains.


  1. Rhett says:

    “How else can one build an argument if building blocks are lacking?”
    Well put. Like you, I always jot down notes during a lecture and wait to ask questions because, more often than not, the question I was going to ask is answered by the professor in the course of the lecture. I can also sympathize about students who interrupt to ask questions that basically amount to “get to the point” or, my favorite, “will this be on the exam?” I have to think that this impatience has been fostered by a culture where we have been conditioned to expect immediate gratification and immediate answers to any query. After all, why wait for a professor, a true scholar in her/his field to finish lecturing? Now that we can all access Wikipedia from our iPhones, anyone can become an expert (so they think) in a matter of seconds. And this is why I sympathize with educators in our present society: Because the worst thing to be in a society where everyone is an expert…is a true expert!

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