Many educators don’t think of attention as a learned skill, but rather as a kind of purchased commodity (Pay attention class!). Attention is much more than that. Emotional arousal and attentional focus are requisite gateways to learning. It’s impossible to learn something that we’re not attending to, and why would we attend to something that we don’t consider important?

Further, many of the mental maladies that people confront throughout life, from an autistic beginning to an Alzheimer’s ending, are attentional disorders at some level. Similarly, inattention leads to automobile accidents, classroom misbehavior, marital strife, and a whole lot more. The bottom line is that effective attention is central to a qualitative life.

Recent dramatic advances in neuroimaging technology can observe and report the activity of cognitive systems and processes (such as attention) at levels beyond the imagination of earlier scientists. These new discoveries could transform educational policy and practice, but only if educators increase their understanding of our brain’s organization and development.

Educating the Human Brain
Good news! Michael Posner and Mary Rothbart, distinguished researchers in attention and development, have collaborated on Educating the Human Brain (2007), a very important and informative book that focuses principally on our attention system and its developmental capabilities.

The authors argue persuasively that although attention is an innate brain property, early explicit instruction can enhance its consciously controlled elements. Effectively attending to the dynamics of a challenge doesn’t insure a successful response, but not appropriately attending to it typically leads to an unsuccessful response. Developing a robust attention system is thus a critical first step in the development of effective problem solving and response skills.

One could similarly say that knowing how a cognitive system functions doesn’t insure that educators can immediately improve its performance, but not knowing how it functions almost insures that professional folklore will drive instructional practice. Understanding attention and other brain systems is thus a first step that educators must take towards improving the cognitive capabilities of students. It’s now become basic knowledge for 21st century educators who will implement the biologically driven instructional interventions that are already beginning to emerge.

Posner and Rothbart’s book makes demands on readers who have a limited understanding of the neurobiology of brain systems and processes. The good news is that a continually increasing number of educators can now comprehend the professionally exciting research discoveries and teaching interventions that Posner and Rothbart describe. My advice to the rest is to get informed, because neurobiological discoveries will increasingly drive 21st century educational policy and practice.

The book begins with a fascinating explanation of how biological research became a factor in our understanding of teaching and learning. Central to this is an excellent explanation of the capabilities and constraints of neuroimaging technology. The authors’ long distinguished research careers give them the credibility that can only come from those who were actually involved in the emergence of the cognitive neurosciences.

The heart of the book is focused on the dynamics of the three distinct networks that regulate attention: (1) the alerting network that prepares us to receive new information and maintains a necessary level of alertness, (2) the orienting network that shifts the current focus to something deemed possibly more important, and (3) the executive network that draws heavily on memory to recognize the identity of the new challenge (foreground), determine its significance, and separate it from background information (which it then merely monitors or ignores). Since it’s often not clear whether a challenge is a danger or opportunity, or which of several current challenges is most important, this network is critical to the resolution of such ambiguities. A dysfunctional executive network may attempt to solve the wrong problem, or to solve problems it doesn’t understand. This error occurs at all levels, from within individual brains to the sets of interacting brains that constitute a company or government.

The development of the conscious regulation of our emotions, thoughts, and behavior (which is what attention does) is affected by such elements as temperament and the environment in which a child lives—and the book discusses these factors in a manner that will be very helpful to educators and parents.

Children differ in their attentional preferences, and in their capacity to regulate attention. What an odd world it would be if we were all culturally and cognitively cloned, with the same interests and abilities. The individual differences that mentors thus confront are challenging, but to complain about them is like a custodian complaining that the floors are dirty. Human variability defines our assignment

The book provides an excellent explanation of the underlying neurobiology of spoken/written language and numeracy. Within this discussion, the authors describe the kinds of interventions that already show promise in improving the attentional capabilities of young children, so that they will not be hampered by the attentional demands of the school and its curriculum. The concomitant explosion of new developments in computer and videogame technologies will play an important role in the development of effective and appropriate training interventions.

Educating the Human Brain is a very informative and optimistic book for those who have a basic understanding of our brain and its processing systems. It projects a future in which many of the problems that educators and parents currently confront will be ameliorated.

The renowned neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga commented on the book: Anybody who thinks that neuroscience is not yet ready for the field of education had better read this book. Posner and Rothbart lay out a sensible and accessible story that will impact the classroom for years to come.