SWARTHMORE, Pa. —
Most of the existing research on training sustained attention has focused on either mitigating the effects of brain injury or treating kids with ADHD. There are various interventions that have produced measurable positive effects, but one must be careful not to assume that what works to bring pathological cases a little closer to normal will also work with normal cases, especially since the problems with brain-injured and ADHD people are likely mostly cognitive whereas the problems I'm worrying about are probably mostly motivational. When it comes to normal people, there is evidence that training in mindfulness meditation improves sustained attention.
There is also evidence, some of it collected by Duckworth and colleagues, that giving kids not only task goals, but detailed plans for achieving those goals, improves sustained attention. And in the KIPP schools, they teach first-graders to pay attention by training them to SLANT (Sit up, Look and Listen to the speaker, Ask questions, Nod and Track the teacher). As Dave Levin, one of KIPPs founders, pointed out to me in an interview several years ago, KIPP developed this training when he and co-founder Mike Feinberg realized that basic learning skills that are just presupposed in middle-class kids are mostly absent among poor kids from the inner city. These skills aren't anyone's birthright. And my worry is that because of our resignation to short attention spans, we can no longer take these skills for granted in anyone.
Research on training attention may one day produce a magic bullet. For now, I'd be satisfied if we nurtured sustained attention in the same way your personal trainer builds up your biceps — by gradually demanding more and more of students' attention muscles in the classroom.