Please Pay Attention!

Leanne Bowler of Pitt's iSchool shares her thoughts on the challenges technology and media place on metacognition, or thinking about thinking

By Leanne Bowler, Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences

What does it mean to be a digitally literate person in the early 21st century? Howard Rheingold tackles this question in his book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012). He identifies five essential ingredients to digital literacy – attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information, and network smarts. In this piece I want to focus on attention, or more precisely, on paying attention on purpose.

Being mindful of our own attention requires us to reflect on our own thinking. This behavior is called metacognition. It’s often said that metacognition is thinking about your own thinking, but it’s more than that. Metacognition is also thinking about your feelings and their relationship to your thinking. This is not something that always comes naturally to most of us. Think about it (and here I’m asking you to be metacognitive!). How often do you sit back and actually reflect on your own thoughts and feelings when you search Google or post your latest status update in Facebook? Since most of us are not well-practiced in metacognition (especially young people), it doesn’t help that information and communications technologies (ICTs) seem to be designed for speed. Some say ICTs, far from asking us to be thoughtful, actually steal our time to think and worse, diminish our capacity for creativity (Levy, 2007). Maybe we just need a slower Google. There have been calls for interface and interaction designs that promote attention and reflection (See for example, Ellen Rose’s challenge to designers, asking them to create metacognitive and reflective technology that supports the “values of mindfulness and care”, 2010, p. 45).

But should we just wait for technology to solve the problem of attention? Surely, as active users of online technologies, we each bear some responsibility here. What about simply learning how to think more mindfully when we use ICTs?

To do that it helps to have some tips and tricks in your back pocket to help you slow down and behave in metacognitive ways when you use ICTs. Howard Rheingold offers several suggestions for building new attention habits, one of which is quite simple and elegant – breathe! Drawing from the techniques of mindfulness training, he suggests that we use breathing as a tool for learning how to focus attention. “Breath links mind, brain, and body,” he writes, “Paying attention to your breath helps cultivate mindfulness” (247). When you practice breathing exercises – breathing deeply, slowly, and intentionally – you actually become more aware of the thoughts roiling around in your mind. This is the first step toward the development of metacognitive awareness. Rheingold offers several other suggestions for gaining control of attention in Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012), a book I recommend for teachers, parents, and young people.

In my own research I have studied how people look for information, especially through the use of search engines and social media. I’m really interested in how people monitor and reflect upon their own thinking and feelings when they search for information.  It seems there is a set of metacognitive tactics and strategies that metacognitively-aware people draw from when they search for information. First of all, just knowing that we should pay attention can help us pay attention. Secondly, putting a name to what we need to attention to when we search for information helps us focus our attention on just that. There are other tips and tricks but space does not permit a full description of the results of my research. So here are a few broad guidelines, drawn from an article I wrote to help teachers and librarians teach young people how to search for information in more mindful ways (Bowler, 2010):

  • Communicate: We often think that searching for information is a solitary activity but it turns out that talking to people can be a metacognitive strategy that helps you monitor your own thinking when you search for information.  Young people need to learn how to talk their way through the information search process (not just type their way), perhaps by practicing how to verbalize information needs.
  • Pull back and reflect: Awareness of the metacognitive benefits of reflecting, reviewing and just stepping away from a problem is key. The myth that teens can multitask better than older generations needs to be shattered. Like all humans, teens need time to gain distance from an information problem and reflect upon it. The act of pausing—literally taking time away from the problem—should be an explicit task or stage built into inquiry-based projects at school.  As well, teachers need to design assignments that have a built-in reflection component, such as, for example, a search journal. Or even, as Howard Rheingold suggests, a period of breathing and meditation.
  • Understand curiosity: Curiosity is good. But when we pair curiosity with information overload, young people can get into trouble (especially in the context of a school assignment). Unrestricted curiosity in a topic can actually threaten the successful outcome of a project. We all need to be mindful (in other words, pay attention to) how we regulate the conflict between the need to discover versus the need to fulfill the requirements of an information task. Making explicit the strategy of shifting curiosity in the topic to curiosity in the process—perhaps by asking students to record their “curiosity status” — is one way to help alleviate a potential breakdown of the search process.
  • Understand memory: As many of us know, re-finding information is a problem in the age of information overload. Knowing that it is difficult to remember everything, knowing how one’s own memory works and, knowing how and when to use specific strategies in order to help one remember where information is located so that it can be retrieved later, are all important aspects of attention. But for many people, the problem of memory is unanticipated because online information lives in a black box and there is little notion of how big this information space is.  A first step in raising awareness about the role of memory may be to demonstrate why it’s actually needed. For example, visualizing the geography of the internet might help to make the size and complexity of information spaces more concrete and make the need for effective memory practices more evident.

I hope your search for ways to focus your attention in your online behavior is successful. And now I’m off to practice my breathing…



Rheingold, Howard. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Bowler, Leanne.  (2010).  A taxonomy of adolescent metacognitive knowledge during the information search process.  Library and Information Science Research. 32(1): 27-42.

Levy, David M. (2007). No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship. Ethics and Information Technology, 9, 237-249.

Rose, Ellen. (2010). Continuous partial attention: Considering the role of online learning in the age of interruption. Educational Technology, 50(4), 41-46.


Published November 12, 2012