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The Science Behind Paying Attention

  Is a teacher lecturing in front of a classroom effective?  Is it possible that the way we teach our children is outdated?

Cathy Davidson thinks so. The author of Now You See It, a book on the science of attention, is also a professor at Duke University.  And in her classrooms, she has the students work in teams, propose assignments and blog about the course.

"The point of turning the classroom around is to get away from thinking that attention is always something hierarchical that someone makes you do and [to] make you a little bit more mindful of your own learning," she told Frank Stasio in an interview on The State of Things. "Once you know something and have to teach it to somebody else , it's a different level of learning than when you just regurgitate it on a test."

But then, what is attention?  And how can it be focused?  Why does our attention so often fail us?

Joshua Lozoff is a magician.  He has made a career out of directing his audience's attention towards the illusion and away from his tricks. 

"When people are arrogant about their ability to pay attention is also when they are most vulnerable," he told Stasio. "The best time to create misdirection, which is the term magicians use for guiding people's attention, is when people are really sure they are paying attention to everything. "

But Jeffrey Brantley, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine, believes that attention is trainable.  He works with many beginning meditators who are trying to learn to fight their own inattentiveness.

"We don't have to fix it.  It's good enough just to notice that our mind wanders and gently bring it back," he told Stasio.

This video of a famous experiment is discussed by the participants of the program

Audio will be up by 3 p.m.

Shawn Wen joined the staff of The State of Things in March 2012 and served as associate producer until February 2014.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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