V. 1. Kevin’s Best Learning Experience


In describing how the actor’s attention works Konstantin Stanislavski comes up with a relative but extremely useful division of the space around us, through which we can distinguish the main areas of our outer attention, i.e. the attention we direct to the outer world. These areas are the ones we “light up” by directing our senses towards them. Calling them “circles of attention”, he arranges these areas in a hierarchy of importance to the person acting on stage, and gives each of them a very specific role in the successful fulfillment of her intentions. The valuable contribution of this approach is relating concentration of attention to action, the latter being the decisive factor in determining what share of our attention each of the objects around us receives.

Using this simple pattern we can easily draw a picture of the distribution of our outer attention in real life. There are three major circles of the attention we pay to the outside world. The first one is – to use the Stanislavski terminology – the small circle. It encloses a relatively tiny space, its boundaries determined by the size and number of objects that interest us at a particular moment. The more focused our interest towards the objects within the circle is, the more stable these boundaries are. If I’m putting on paper a story or an article, for as long as I write my small circle of attention will certainly be constituted by my notebook.

At a certain point I might decide to continue my story on the desktop computer. In this case I’ll have to distribute my attention between two objects: the keyboard and the monitor. Even though both of them are within my immediate reach, they are separated from each other, which means that I’ll be operating within two small circles. What lies between them: the pen, the wallet, the cell phone and the coffee mug, is not related to what I’m doing; hence those objects are out of my area of attention. If I’m painting a vase on a stand next to the window my attention will cover even more small circles. I’ll be absorbed with an equal intensity alternatively by the palette, the canvas, and the vase. If I’m watching a horse race, my attention will jump between my bet and the other racers, thus forming a whole series of small mobile circles. In all of these cases the sum of the small circles forms the second major circle of human attention: the medium circle. It could also be called the useful circle, because all the objects found in it contribute to the fulfillment of our intentions.

The small circles within the medium circle are arranged in a hierarchy of importance. Let’s imagine that you are negotiating your annual pay increase with the owners of the company you work for. As a valuable part of the upper management you are being invited to a personal meeting with the president and the vice-president as well as the accountant general. Even though you predominantly address the president, you keep an eye on the other two in the room, especially in critical moments, such as when you get down to the numbers. All three of your conversation partners are included in your medium circle of attention, but among them the president represents the small circle, which holds most weight.

Let’s explore further. If the meeting is being held in an office, could the whole of the office space be counted as your medium circle? What if a big fat fly buzzes around, or the wind coming in from the open window keeps ruffling the papers on the desk? The medium circle is never a certain space in its entirety. This is why the most efficient way of determining it is by establishing the small circles it is comprised of, which in their contents and arrangement to each other are derivatives of our purposeful action.

Further on, there comes the large circle. It is formed by every object within the reach of our senses. Defining it certainly isn’t a question of size or distance. It could include the noisy construction site across the street as well as the smell of fried fish across the corridor. Every single irritant which we might see, hear, smell, taste, or touch is part of our large circle of attention. We might also call it the harmful circle, because spreading our attention as far as our senses can go always serves as a distraction to what we are doing at the moment, because it is irrelevant to our current business.

The harmful circle of attention stalks us at every moment of our conscious lives. As Stanislavski points out, the best way of preserving our concentration is to become fully involved in our action, letting it absorb us emotionally and “warm us up from within”. But concentration comes with the ability not only to focus, but also to quickly distribute and redistribute the focus among the small circles, to develop an attention that is flexible and capable of multitasking. This requires the additional abilities to quickly and clearly prioritize, briskly switch the priorities based on change of circumstances, confidently build up a strong imaginary wall between the medium and the large circles, and last but not least, be ready to blow this wall apart once an occurrence relevant to our intentions appears beyond it.

For the last six months the parents of 15-year-old Kevin are being repeatedly summoned to their son’s school. First the homeroom teacher, then most of the others express concerns over Kevin’s poor grades. Things get even worse when the deputy principal suggests a visit to the doctor, and even a check-up for ADD. Devastated, a couple of days later the father shares this information with his brother, who lives less than 30 miles away, in the uplands. Oddly enough, once hearing about his nephew’s drama, Kevin’s uncle doesn’t make a single comment on the family’s problem; instead, after a few remarks about the weather and another beer he suggests that Kevin is sent to him for the upcoming winter vacation. “The doctor can wait”, the uncle insists. “Do not put the burden of your panic onto the kid’s shoulders; let him take his time, and relax, for God’s sake!” Kevin loves to visit his uncle’s family, and his tears over his father’s initial refusal finally work: the next weekend he is on his way to his uncle’s town.

As it turns out his time doesn’t pass chatting with his cousin in her room or daydreaming by the stove as he has expected. Instead, his uncle introduces him to an exciting new venture: duck hunting. Kevin is given a pair of new boots, a hunting suit and – wow! – a pump gun. Every morning both of them drive to the marshes near town, spread out the decoys and sink behind their blind. No matter whether they make a good bag or not, with each passing visit to the hunting grounds Kevin gets better in mastering the basics of the craft: operating the decoys, duck calling, helping his uncle setting up the blind or camouflaging their faces. Not wanting to miss anything the teenager develops a good taste for details. He makes sure to adjust the blind while his uncle is busy with the ammunition or the dog. Based on the weather conditions and wind direction his uncle tells him about he starts participating in deciding which spot is to be picked for the day. Every new flock enriches his knowledge of species, recognizing different birds on the wing according to their size and flight characteristics, and predicting where they would land. He even starts challenging his uncle in locating the biggest group of ducks in the fog only by listening to the noises they make.

Without even knowing it Kevin devotes his vacation to learning how to manage his attention. By unstringing decoys in the dark within the limited preparation time he learns how to focus completely in a small circle of attention; aiming his gun while trying to stay completely silent improves his ability to concentrate in his small circle even more; while watching the swimming or diving birds and choosing his target he perfects in quickly switching the small circles holding on to his medium one at the same time; by keeping an eye and an ear on new birds flying down without getting distracted by the bizarre clouds, the rain, or the sounds from other groups of hunters, he develops the ability to keep his medium circle flexible, and his large circle suppressed and outside his attention zone. He begins to excel in distributing his focus between following the direction of the wind by feeling it on his face and looking out for a new flock of ducks approaching from among the clumps of reed. By remembering the exact places of the calls or the different kinds of decoys in the trunk he even manages to cultivate his visual memory, and quickly bring it back to life upon necessity.

Three weeks later Kevin goes back to school. Even without the motivation of the hunting venture or the responsibility of being trusted by an adult his class results improve dramatically. No surprise – someone taught him how to use what he already had.

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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