There are stacks of books in our house. There is a pile steadily growing in my office. I look at the titles: Braiding Sweetgrass, Being Mortal, Great Modern European Short Stories, Redeployment. I have read many, started more. Where to find the time to get back to, settle down with, and lose myself in their pages? My time to do so has been compromised. I slip into my iPhone. I read the news, browse through editorials, check the weather, check the scores (Cubs won yesterday), check email, text. I multi-task, flicker from this to that and back again. The margin time, the free time, even the uninterrupted work time, is increasingly compromised.
Focus on a single task? It’s a rare opportunity.
Everything is streaming these days. Everyone has to work harder to slow down. Focus. Proctor students are toggling, clicking, skimming even as they are asked to solve Algebra problems, navigate Biology, or read Henry David Thoreau for homework. Imagine reading through 20 pages of Walden in a night, an almost herculean task for any sophomore, while scrolling through posts and trying to stay up on the news. If a mind wanders when reading through a paragraph of Thoreau, forget it. (And you will.) Hit reset. Start from the beginning to pick up the thread because SnapChat will scissor through comprehension and recall every time.
How to teach focus? Why teach focus?
How is likely different for every student. How is dependent on there being a hook, an interest that predisposes a student to focus, and that is going to happen in different settings for different students. The how has to be customized. When a student gets into the focus zone in one subject, there’s a better chance of transferring it to another, which is why breadth of offerings can be so critical in a school. We often think of this in terms of “finding a passion.” It might be better thought of as finding a focus and the transferable skill of focus.
Why teach focus? Not just because focus might be the next new thing, but also because mono-tasking or single-tasking is a skill that every graduate is going to have to possess. Every student is going to have to – at some point – step out of the click stream to derive the deep satisfaction from work, from a passion outside of work, from a relationship. Verena von Pfetten, in a NY Times article from last April, Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?) speaks to the importance of developing this skill. It’s a way to enhance productivity, quality of work, and enjoyment in the task. Students should be able to slip into the focus zone without feeling they are missing out or not keeping up.
On Proctor’s Ocean Classroom and Mountain Classroom programs, students have limited access to technology, and we believe that this allows them a richer experience. Access to phones and the Internet disappears for days at a time, as parents keen for news of the journey or voyage so acutely know. The emphasis is on the program, the here-now experience. Without the mind wandering off, a deeper, imprint learning occurs. Yes, it helps that learning takes place in sensory rich environments, but the absence of technology is a significant contributor. Students come off these two programs saying they were life changing. They’ve been focused without technology and the reward is significant. Our challenge, our children’s challenge, is to find a little of that focus zone every day and to push it outwards.
Don’t toggle. Don’t click. Focus.
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School