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An Ethics of Attention in the Classroom

I am deeply worried that we have lost the space to critique what seem like progressive ideas in education without being construed as a reactionary conservative. Yes, the neo-conservative authoritarians present a living danger to education, but so do the neoliberals who equate freedom with being an entrepreneur in the free market.

Read against the authoritarian backdrop, Bill Ferriter’s tweet and subsequent blog post about fidget spinners in class seems progressive:


Actually, I find his picture to be an authoritarian stance in relation to teachers: it recognizes no grey areas, nuance, or tolerance for alternative views.

It immediately reminded me of Seth Godin, who Ferriter appears to be a fan of: “If your target audience isn’t listening, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.” That marketization of life, relationships, and education is what I had in mind when I tweeted that Ferriter’s logic exemplifies neoliberal spectacle and is deprofessionalizing and dehumanizing. Ferriter interpreted my criticism as being lazy practice: “Arguing that “some learning is inherently boring. Get over it.” is what drives me nuts. That’s lazy practice.” And as failing to take action: “As for “deprofessionalizing,” there’s nothing less professional than recognizing that kids aren’t engaged and failing to take action.”


I want to say a bit about where I’m coming from and unpack my criticism of his take on engagement.

I’m not a reactionary conservative who believes in valuing the authority of the teacher over the agency of students. We need to understand how to simultaneously develop and value the agency of teachers and students while having empathy for both at the same time.


Teachers are blamed for a lot. As Michael Apple points out, “Any occupation that is feminized, that is seen as women’s paid work, as most teaching is, gets less respect, less authority, and less pay and is blamed constitutively and continually when there is an economic crisis.”


I take critical pedagogy as my starting point and not so-called constructivism, which leaves out what Paulo Freire calls “revolutionary futurity” in Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire wrote that “a deepened consciousness of their situation leads people to apprehend that situation as an historical reality susceptible of transformation.” Nothing is inevitable, and for revolutionary action, people “must perceive their state not as fated and unalterable, but merely as limiting — and therefore challenging.”

Agency is about recognizing and building our principled interdependence with people and things. Keri Facer writes, “Principled interdependence implies a recognition of the extent to which we are dependent upon other people, wider institutions, environment and tools to be able to act in the world; and of the extent to which our own actions therefore also have implications for other people and for their agency in turn.” (55)


Making teachers completely responsible for student engagement doesn’t build agency in kids; it builds consumers and manufactures audience for Fox New.


Students will need to learn how to resist spectacle and read deeply and critically, to seek out the quiet and silenced voices. They will need to learn to actively engage themselves and lift-up others.


Learning is difficult work and we are surrounded by targets that have been engineered to grab our attention. Most of these targets such as Snapchat serve a profit model.


Humans are worth our attention, and teachers are humans (not robots yet). When I’m tired and sick and still on my feet teaching, I’m worth paying attention to even if my delivery and lesson is a bit off. We need to help children recognize the importance of relationships and conversation in life. Students are not helpless in front of their impulses; sometimes we need to suppress immediate impulse for the long term social good.1 This is Darwin’s argument against the idea that morality is founded on self-interest, as was popular with utilitarians at the time. He thought ...continue


Going on a trip to buy a fidget spinner may seem more interesting than visiting grandma. Some lessons we only learn too late.

I reflect on my practice and actions and want to build the same capacity in kids. We shouldn’t assume that teachers are not reflective. We wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what we could do better.


I let kids make all kinds of choices about their behavior – where to sit, whether to listen to music, to use their phones, to use a fidget – with the goal that they reflect and learn about what they bring to the dynamic and interaction. We need to create room for them to reflect and say, “I ought to have paid more attention and tried harder.” Reflexively and immediately blaming the teacher and the lesson doesn’t leave room for this dialog. Nor does enacting blanket bans.


We need to know and care about our students, adjusting our instruction to what they need. That also means talking with them about whether or not their behaviors are helping them learn.


Yes, engagement is a problem, but it’s a political problem and not merely a problem about lesson design. Studying powerful topics and using critical lenses can help engage students, as does offering them choice in their work.


Many people are vulnerable, lack power and voice, and we need to give them attention. Teachers have power over students, but are also targets of discrimination and bias. Look at course evaluations for female professors.


What if students play with their fidgets instead of listening to a fellow student who is brave enough to speak about racism or sexism, their experience not conforming to their perceived gender, or why they hate the R-word. Sometimes, people just need to listen.



A student kindly let me take and share this photo today.

References   [ + ]

1. This is Darwin’s argument against the idea that morality is founded on self-interest, as was popular with utilitarians at the time. He thought that the human power of reflection would lead to regret when “the enduring and always present social instinct had yielded to some other instinct, at the time stronger, but neither enduring in its nature, nor leaving behind it a very vivid impression.”
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