Archived Story

Richard Weigel: Focus on Focus

Published 11:59pm Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I was on my way to class when a friend ran up to me to show me his brand new calculator.
“Look at this,” he said. “Its a calculator and it can do everything a slide-rule can do and so much quicker.” (The year was 1971 and the slide rule was considered the quickest way to calculate numbers.) This was indeed a technology that astounded all of us as we watched him use his calculator in class and get answers so much faster than all the rest of us. Yet, as amazing as the calculator was, the technology was only the servant-not the master.”
The term “21st Century Skills” relates to skills that all of us should have to be effective learners, thinkers, and doers. The skills include oral communication, collaboration, critical thinking, ethical behavior, written communication, and technology literacy. Yet there is one more skill that I believe our students need. Perhaps it is 21st century or perhaps it is a skill that encapsulates all the rest. That is the skill of “Focus.”
We are too often entranced with new technologies but we must remember, the technology might make things faster, but it does not always improve things. Chapter 7 of the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins has the title of “Technology Accelerators.” Most good companies understand that they need technology to progress. However, great companies realize that not all technology is useful and that technology is more of an aid than a primary mover. Adoption of technology should always be bound by the intent of what you want to accomplish.
This brings me back to the concept of “Focus.” As I watch students send text messages, answer their phone, browse the computer, or watch five different television stations while sending a message on Facebook, I cannot help but wonder if anything is really getting done. They seem to have learned the concept of multi-tasking (perhaps from their parents) but there is evidence that it should be called shift-tasking and it simply does not work. The concept of multi-tasking is in reality, an inefficient use of time because it diverts ‘focused’ attention from one item and only provides ‘surface’ attention to many items. I have watched my son take hours to do a 30 minute homework assignment because he lacks “focus.”
When we focus on a specific task our mind has the chance to think deeply about a concept. Focus means that suddenly there is less stimuli and an individual must work within one’s own thoughts for ideas or connections. Suddenly the individual is on an island without the constant din of noise from friends or technology.
The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Ericcson et al., 2006) offers abundant evidence that focus is a key element for any individual to become good at anything. To be good at anything, one must focus and practice a skill over and over. On page 770 it says, “When the Beatles hit it big in 1963, they had already been working together for several years, and they had spent thousands of hours playing together.” It takes focus on a specific skill for a multitude of hours to become good at anything. It is often not the talent of an individual that leads to great accomplishments. More often it is the focused mind on practiced skill attainment.
Remember the flight controllers who lost their focus? How about the individual who sends a text while driving? That lack of focus can cost lives.
Technology is a wonderful tool. However, technology will change and in a short time, what we thought was the greatest, like a 1971 calculator, will be an artifact in a museum. It is the ability to focus while we practice key skills that involve our best thinking that will yield the greatest results for our students.
In our schools it is important that we focus on specific ideas and practice them to become experts. Our students must become experts in the skills being taught. Niles Community Schools administrators and teachers are building our expertise for the use of student data as a means to improve our practice. We are also developing our expertise in the art of teaching writing, collaboration, problem solving, and more. Like other experts, we practice our skills until we become the best at teaching so all our students are learning at the highest levels. Our teachers are striving to become world class experts as they practice and practice the skills that will prepare our students for their future. In order for our students to reach their full potential in an ever changing and challenging world, they also must learn and practice the skill of “focus.” I challenge the adults in our students’ lives to do the same, model the behavior of focus, and become a partner in our efforts to inspire locally but excel globally.

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