Joint Attention and Mutual Awareness: “Why” Not “What”

Over the years I have come to realize that we often ask the wrong question. The real issue is not “What should we do” or “What type of activity will s/he be interested in?” but rather “Why is the student acting this way? Why does s/he not show interest?” Answering the “Why” question is, however, trickier when a student is an AAC user who has difficulty expressing him/herself. So, it seems easier to focus on activity outcomes rather than to spend time understanding why the student is not paying attention.

Students who do not behave in a way that we expect can be challenging to teach. This is particularly difficult, as we want to demonstrate the gains that students make. If they do not find activities interesting, we change our instructional approaches and strategies (e.g., reinforcement) to ensure the student complies. Changing teaching activities or reward strategies, however, does not guarantee that what we change to will be more effective.

Joint Attention and Mutual Awareness.

Exposing a student to a variety of learning activities enables staff to record how the student performs on each task. However, the student and teacher completing a specific learning task does not necessarily mean that the student gained from the activity. It also does not mean that student and teacher have grown in their awareness of each other.

Naomi Eilen (Warwick University) describes the difference between joint attention and mutual awareness. She explains the relationship between two people (in our case the student and the teacher) who participate in a task together. As they focus on the same task, they are in a three-way relationship, that is, among teacher, task, and student. Teacher and student hence relate to each other through the task.

Relating to the same task, however, does not mean that they are necessarily aware of each other. The following example might clarify the difference between joint attention and awareness for our discussion.

Example of a Classroom Interaction

A teacher and Mark (6 years old) are doing a math task . Mark has to complete certain math questions. The teacher explains to Mark what he needs to do and proceeds with the task. Mark complies, but often looks at another boy, Pete, sitting at a table near him. As this is distractive behavior, the teacher re-directs Mark’s attention to the task every time. Every now and then, however, Mark keeps looking at Pete. Eventually, the teacher moves Mark’s chair so that he is not able to look at Pete. After finishing the task, the teacher turns around and sees that there is a puddle of water on the floor below Peter’s table. She quickly walks to get a cloth to dry up the puddle and takes Pete out of the classroom as Mark watches intently.

Some Points of Interest:

From the example, it is evident that Mark was not really interested in the learning activity, as he was interested in what happened to Pete. He does not, however, alert the teacher to what he is observing. The teacher focuses on the goal of the activity and doesn’t think to stop and investigate why Mark is looking over at Pete with some frequency.

Herein lies the dilemma: the teacher wanted to complete the task and expected Mark to focus. Mark, however, had other concerns. By not asking the question “why” Mark was looking at Pete, she missed a few learning opportunities:

  1. Communication: Firstly, this was an opportunity to expand on Mark’s communication by using his communication device or communication board. For example, she could use core words such as you, look, what, happened, see Pete, worried, see water, under, table, etc., to allow her to help Mark to express what he observed.
  2. Awareness of Mark’s concern: This scenario also provides an opportunity for the teacher to become aware of Mark’s awareness of Peter and his dilemma. By acknowledging Mark’s interest in or concern for Pete, the teacher displays empathy towards Mark’s state of being and hence develops a more thorough understanding of the student.
  3. Problem-solving: The third missed opportunity lies with the failure to help Mark understand that he should speak up in the situation. Mark needs to learn to guide the teacher’s attention to what he observes and, in this way, help Pete.

Yes, But…

One can argue that diverting from the teaching goals like this would mean that Mark achieved in avoiding the math task. One could also say, however, that taking time to deal with Mark’s concern in the situation would have eliminated a stumbling block in getting him to focus on the math task. Beyond the obvious, though, this situation could have enhanced mutual awareness and understanding between the teacher and the student.

Take-home Message

Being able to jointly focus attention on a task, does not mean that you are aware of who the student is. Connecting with a student goes beyond focusing attention on a task.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *