Linda Stone on attention, computers, and education

Linda Stone, who coined the terms "continuous partial attention" and "email apnea" to describe some of the ways we unconsciously interact with our computers, discusses attention, education and computers with The Atlantic's James Fallows:

LS: Let's talk about reading or building things. When you did those things, nobody was giving you an assignment, nobody was telling you what to do--there wasn't any stress around it. You did these things for your own pleasure and joy. As you played, you developed a capacity for attention and for a type of curiosity and experimentation that can happen when you play. You were in the moment, and the moment was unfolding in a natural way.

You were in a state of relaxed presence as you explored your world. At one point, I interviewed a handful of Nobel laureates about their childhood play patterns. They talked about how they expressed their curiosity through experimentation. They enthusiastically described things they built, and how one play experience naturally led into another. In most cases, by the end of the interview, the scientist would say, "This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I'm still playing!"

An unintended and tragic consequence of our metrics for schools is that what we measure causes us to remove self-directed play from the school day. Children's lives are completely programmed, filled with homework, lessons, and other activities.. There is less and less space for the kind of self-directed play that can be a fantastically fertile way for us to develop resilience and a broad set of attention strategies, not to mention a sense of who we are, and what questions captivate us. We have narrowed ourselves in service to the gods of productivity, a type of productivity that is about output and not about results.

Linda Stone on Maintaining Focus in a Maddeningly Distractive World (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. Play! Play? What kind of airy fairy talk is this? If we let kids just play all the time who would be doing all the essential tasks that keep this country running? The Chinese! That’s who. You can bet that the Chinese aren’t concerned about their children playing, they have them out there in the factories polishing iPhones and assembling all our tech gear with their little fingers. What good is “play” when you need a workforce that works? 

    America’s attitude toward education for work is bizarre. We don’t want the kids to have “self-directed play” unless we can prove that it will lead to a 6 figure job. There is a strong streak of ” Studying should be hard. You aren’t going to learn really important working from playing.” (Like how to develop credit default swaps or how to lobby politicians to get money for your new weapons systems). Work should be work. Why do you think they call it work? The only people who get to “play at work” are professional athletes and actors and actresses, and they are always supposed to apologize for how much fun they have while making money doing it. Think about all the times you hear, ‘I’d do it for free. ” or “I’d pay them for the chance to do this.” 

    Americans hate people who enjoy their job, because most of them don’t have a job they enjoy. 

    I had an old professor of economics who said about work, ‘If you like to do it you pay them, if you don’t like to do it they pay you.”

    1. I’m always  amazed & worried with how early children start academics in the US, and long days in school! Seems like it starts earlier and earlier, and parents also themselves push it early. And I’m wondering… why??? As far as I know there isn’t really that much correlation with early academics and later success in school. But there seems to be a hard “we have to compete with others” which seems to equal to “and start early!!!”. 

      I do understand that having a non-phonetic language requires you to start earlier, but… our kids start school the year they turn seven with (first and second class is 4h of school per day), and so far they have been doing pretty decent on the PISA tests (a pretty heterogeneous population and phonetic language gives a big advantage, though). Kids are small such a short time, they will have time to sit in school later on. Also, in my opinion, play… and especially free play… is incredibly important for development.

      1. It’s been shown that the youngest children (due to birthday) do fairly horribly in school (and sometimes life) and never make it up later. It’s quite evil, really, pushing children into things that they’re not ready to do. Why not, for instance, start a school year twice per year instead of once, to better accommodate children’s real developmental level? It might not be possible in a village, but it could be done in more urban areas.

        1. Actually high quality preschool has been shown to have a very positive impact on a person’s life, particularly those poorer students.

          I haven’t seen the research about younger kids doing worse in school. Do you have a link?

          1. Well, yes… there has been similar kind of results in the studies in my country… _but_ for daycare, which means very light on any academics (some basic colors and numbers kind of academics). So it doesn’t have to be in an academic setting for it to have a positive impact. 

            Anyway, do you know if there are any studies where the children have been in a high-quality non-academic setting vs. an academic one?

  2.  “This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I’m still playing!”

    This is adorable until you realize that most almost no primary investigators do hands-on work any more and instead direct the activity of graduate students, post-docs and technicians. Very few who would describe of what they do on a day-to-day basis as playing.

    Sorry. Just submitted my dissertation. Tired.

  3. She discovered that even Nobel Laureates will provide anecdotal evidence given the chance.

  4. If you had asked me 25 years ago what the problems with the education system in this country is I would have said an over-emphasis on test taking and over-reliance on those results would lead to the wrong things being elevated to importance because the really important things can’t be measured by a test. I could crow about how I knew all along this would happen.

    Instead. I will ask that you stay on the sidewalk as you pass by.

  5. self directed play is exactly what the environment of a typical waldorf school encourages, with teachers and staff gradually giving more direction and instruction, in between playing and snacking and running around outside, rain or shine, 9 months of the year with ample days off for holidays and annual festivals and more play…
     but the mainstream, teach-to-the-test public school system expects kindergartners to be reading at a waldorf second graders level and quizzing rote math like a waldorf third grader. cramming useless rote information into their budding brainstems, deluged by television media, and computer screens, and a cacophony of electronic over-stimulations…not until 5th grade does a typical waldorf student catchup with her public school contemporaries in word recognition skills… but then she is (typically) way ahead in critical thinking, comprehension, spell testing equivalency… and getting ready for high school level geometry…

    are there any happy mutants with little mutants enrolled in waldorf school here? your child will be so much more equipt for those jobs that she loves to play at if you keep her in the waldorf system thru high school. anecdotally or not…

  6. I was and am a determined sort of person who has created a clinic where I play with applied science and kinesiology every day. I have created all the evaluations I do by compiling a smattering of this and that, until I get the data I need to solve problems. Education tried to encourage and stymie the process along the way. I got there anyway. I do it for the smiles of joy when people can walk without pain. It makes me happy.

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