Educational Reform and the Forgotten Virtue of Focus

In Part 3 of my interview with Graham Taylor on brain fitness, I talked about educational reform. I pointed out that sometimes our educational efforts are focused so much on content that we neglect to give adequate consideration to the skills that go into being an effective learner. For thousands of years thinkers have been developing techniques of memory and learning, yet modern education tends to neglect these techniques to focus exclusively on content. Here’s one of the points I made about this:

To expect children to learn by throwing content at them without first giving them the tools for effective learning is like throwing someone in the water and asking them to swim without any training. Now if you do that long enough, eventually the person may learn to swim or at least stay afloat, but it will never be as effective as if they had been trained in the proper techniques….

Another analogy comes from music. The techniques of memory and learning are like a musician learning his or her scales. When you understand about all the notes in the scales and you can play the scales correctly, then you are ready to begin learning pieces that incorporating the notes and techniques you’ve mastered into more complex pieces. Even after mastering the scales, there are other techniques you need to learn. That is why people who have been playing the piano for years still spend half their practice time working on technique. Right technique provides a foundation to build upon.

And I’m not just referring here to memorizing techniques. A successful student also needs to know techniques like focus, which I’ve already briefly mentioned but which it might be worthwhile to explore in a little more detail. Without focus there can be no learning. Without focus there can be no remembering. Without focus there can be no organizing of knowledge into schemas. Without focus there can be no creativity or productivity. Without focus there can be no emotional intelligence and peaceful communication in our relationships. Without focus we can’t develop the type of well-disciplined mind that is able to self-consciously reject thinking errors despite their emotional pull. So focus should be right at the top of our list of brain-fitness skills.

Focus is rightly considered a skill because it is something that can be practiced. We practice focus through mindfulness techniques, meditative practices and deliberate acts of mental self-control.

FocusI already mentioned Daniel Goleman in the context of his work on emotional intelligence. In 2013 he wrote a book called Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Goleman’s earlier work showed that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ whereas now he’s sharing research that mental focus, and related concepts such as mental self-control and willpower, are more important than IQ. But it isn’t just that focus is more important than IQ; in some sense focus is also a necessary condition for IQ since focus is the foundation on which other mental virtues can be built. Goleman shared fascinating research showing that childhood self-control is a stronger predictor of a person’s long-term financial success than IQ, social class or family origins. Compared with IQ, self-control is a more accurate predictor of emotional adjustment, interpersonal skills and a sense of security and adaptability.

From a purely cost-benefit analysis, you would think that schools and parents would have a vested interest in spending at least some time every day—maybe as short as 5 minutes—offering training and practice in focus skills. Businesses realize this and many corporations are now hiring focus experts to offer mindfulness training to their staff to increase productivity. I’m not so much interested in focus for its utility value, so much as a way to achieve our mental and spiritual potential.

Some wealthy parents pour enormous money into sending their children to good private schools, or getting the best tutors for their children. But these things, important as they may be, are of minimal importance compared to much more mundane things that teach a child conscientiousness, self-control and focus—like expecting a child do his or her chores consistently, or requiring a child to focus on practicing an instrument at the same time every day even when distractions are occurring around her, or whatever it is that we use to teach our children to structure their daily routine around the disciplines of focus and self-control. As Goleman writes, “Don’t underestimate the value of practicing the guitar or keeping that promise to feed the guinea pig and clean its cage. Another bottom line: Anything we can do to increase children’s capacity for cognitive control will help them throughout life.”