Teaching paying attention


Lately I have been pondering the practice of paying attention, vis-à-vis my habit of keeping a notebook to capture impressions, details and memories. I finished my last post with a question: can paying attention be taught? I am interested in this as a writer and as an educator both of children and teachers.

The example of Anne McCrary Sullivan would suggest that it can. Her experience of watching her marine biologist mother going out each day to lay nets on the beach in the morning, then observe the microscopic plankton she found there later in the afternoon, taught her the practice of paying ‘attention to the complexities of surface detail and also attention to what lies beneath those surfaces.’

This mirrors precisely the social-constructivist theory of Vygotsky and Bruner, namely that children grow into the ‘intellectual lives’ of those around them. Other factors also need to come into play, of course: opportunity, motivation and affirmation to name a few. But it is a start, and a powerful one, to have modelled to you as a young learner creative habits of mind, not just the thing itself, but its name and impact on the individual concerned.

This is why I say to the trainee teachers I work with that it is important to show the scrappy bits of writing they do when they are drafting something, be it a shopping list, an essay, or tomorrow’s shared writing. How else are children going to find out that all writing is provisional and does not just fall out of the skies, perfectly formed, onto the board?

McCrary Sullivan provides examples of teaching attention in her article Notes from a Marine Biologist’s Daughter. She describes taking classes out to the field behind the school building, ‘each to sit alone and watch a small patch of grass, to observe and record ‘what happens there.”

She continues: ‘The wording, ‘what happens there’, was important. Skepticism about this assignment was generally high among my students. ‘Just stare,’ I would say. ‘Stare at the grass until something happens.’ No one ever failed to see things happen. Small events became sources of excitement — an ant crawling up a blade of grass, a flutter of motion produced by a breeze, a shifting of light, the crossing of a cloud shadow.’ Other assignments included finding a place where there’s nothing going on: ‘Sit there for ten minutes and record everything that happens.’

These remind me of a lesson I once saw Philip Gross teach to some teachers on a course at the university where I work. We were going to go outside, he said, on a ‘poetry walk’. He handed out post-it notes to each teacher, no more than five or so, and out we went into the sunshine. The thing we would be practising, Philip said, was noticing. Not judging or commenting, but noticing. We had barely left the building when he stopped us. We were standing on an unprepossessing section of asphalt, near to the doors, next to some bushes. We had all passed them as we entered the building at the start of the day. ‘Stare at the bushes,’ Philip said. ‘Write down one thing you see.’

We performed the same task at several different stages of our route, each time with a slightly different twist ( a member of the group chose where to pause; we would look up, or down at the ground next to our feet; or close our eyes and listen), but each time doing the same essential action: pausing, noticing, recording.

Back in the classroom Philip asked us to choose two of our five observations to work on. If we wanted to change certain words we could, he said. Or rearrange them into short lines.

We read them out:

one ant


on an old, old leaf

Very gently, we let out a gasp. Breathing in the room slowed; silence thickened around us. We began to see what he had been teaching us. By focussing attention, albeit in a guided manner, we had captured the essence of things we would otherwise have not taken time to look at.

I am certain we left the space altered from how we came in.


  1. Thanks for posting this Anthony. I’m reading a lot of “Golden Age” Chinese poetry, and there are whole schools of thought (and poetics) around paying attention and rendering what you happen to see. Whatever you call it–mindfulness, focus, etc.–it can lead to startling results, but more importantly, to a richer appreciation of whatever moment you’re in.


    1. Thank you so much for commenting.
      I think as with most things the Chinese got there first.
      Appreciating the moment is a lesson that can never be over-learned.
      Thank you again for stopping by, I greatly appreciate it.
      As ever


  2. This is marvellous. I love the lesson in watching a patch of grass. The poetry of mindfulness, yes. I’m not sure one *teaches* anyone to pay attention so much as reminds them they can do it (and gives ‘permission’ to allocate time). Watching my grandbaby at the moment (she is 8 months old) her acuteness of attention stops time. I have to do the grass thing. I love the grass thing.


    1. Hi Nell.
      Watching a grandbaby must be a new lesson in attention every day (every second!). What a great way to be. And to be spending time.
      As ever with grateful good wishes


  3. I often give people the exercise to just go and look at a one-metre square of the ground. Is it paved? Right – paved with what? Are the paving stones cracked or whole, covered with gum or fag butts? If it’s grass – how many daisies or snails, how many beetles or patches of exposed ground? It does exactly that trick of reminding poets that our only job is to PAY ATTENTION and report back.


    1. Hi Jo.
      This sounds like a great exercise.
      I was always told at school that I was no good at paying attention.
      It turns out I was, but not in school.
      I loved your post today on Praise, by the way, and the link to that amazing poem at the Scottish Poetry Library.
      Thank you so much.
      As ever with best wishes



  4. Hi Andrew,
    I discovered your blog while I was looking up Michael Benton. I read a couple of your entries and this one caught my eye. I am an English teacher at an Israeli secondary school. I would like to use the “poetry walk” idea – with my advanced students as an introduction to Wordsworth poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and for my weak ‘bouncy’ students as an exercise in concentration.
    Thank you for sharing this – it’s brilliant!


    1. Dear Dominique
      Thank you for your kind comment.
      Michael Benton’s work was a huge influence on me when I started researching poetry practice in schools.
      I’m glad you want to use this poetry walk idea.
      With good wishes and thanks


  5. Hi Anthony
    I’ve been trying to find a way of describing that kind of attentive silence (we feel it when the Poetry By Heart students start reciting a poem) – and “thickened” is exactly it. Thanks for that! I’d love to see a study of this – could you measure the thickness of that silence?!


    1. Hi Julie
      It’s great to hear from you!
      I would love to measure the thickness of that silence. You could measure it in Cliff Yates’s. Or Philip Gross’s. Or Spracklands. These are all great teachers of silence. And noticing. And knowing when to


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