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Facebook is getting a lot of attention these days…for how they keep our attention. While the social and political implications of what platforms do and don’t do is very important, the story also draws attention to… attention.

Attention is a finite resource—we can ‘spend’ it or ‘invest’ it—but we do not get more of it. (ADD and ADHD are poorly named—no one has a deficit of attention—our modern education just preferences certain ways of attending over others.) Every moment we give our attention to one thing, we cannot give it to something else. And to make things, to do hard things, to do important things, we need to be able to direct our own attention. (Social media companies and their advertisers do not serve our interests in this regard!)

At Waterloo, our work must include helping students ‘command’ their own attention. This explains why our classes are over two hours long— a long time for teenage brains and bodies! But longer periods create space for learning that short sprints do not.

I chatted with some visiting students after spending the day at Waterloo to hear about their visit. I am always eager to hear how students from traditional school schedules experience Waterloo. They told me that in one class—an Intro to Law—time blew by as they helped students examine the elements of a court case. In the other—Data Science—they often struggled to understand what students were doing as they examined data and sought to understand what story it tells—in that setting, paying attention was harder.

Both experiences are instructive—we benefit from attention-engaging learning activities that go deep over long periods of time. And we benefit from practicing hard, difficult things where attention is the hard choice. Like long runs and workouts to increase physical endurance, long hard slogs are practice—with encouragement and coaching—that increases our ability to command our attention—to do great things.

Do great things. What are we meant to do? To do great things. For those we love. For those around us. For those in need. This is what school is for: to prepare each student to be able to do the great things that each student has the ability to do. Most don’t know yet, what those things should be. (Do you know for yourself?) There are many skills to learn, much knowledge to gain, even more wisdom to acquire. And, then there is attention to deepen, to command, to hold—to wrestle away from facebook, TikTok, instagram, and the like—in order to do my great things.

Craig Doerksen