As Mark Enser so eloquently put it in his recent article in the TES on this topic, the idea that it is important that students pay attention, can be put in “well, duh” basket of educational advice.
Still, knowing it and achieving it are two different things. Even harder is achieving it in a way that best exploits the available evidence.
A really useful blog to develop an understanding of the evidence-base in this area is the one written by Mike Hobbiss, school teacher and cognitive neuroscience researcher. The sister blog to my own one, develops this further and can be found on the Durrington Research School website. One aspect of the research-evidence here, is that while there is evidence regarding the problems around student attention, there is less clarity on what to do to retain it. However, what there is, is sound research in other areas that may be able to help us find some “best bet” solutions.
Therefore, to support these excellent explanations of the vagaries of student attention and its importance, here are five practical tips for classroom teachers:
1) Consider the limitations of working memory
The information in our working memories lasts for about 30 seconds and we can attend to roughly four things at a time. That is why when you try and remember an account number and sort code while working your telephone banking app, you often fail. Therefore, students will not be able to attend to instructions that do not take account of these limitations. If your instructions last too long, some students will have forgotten the start of what you’ve told them before you finishing talking.
2) Consider the implications of Cognitive Load Theory
The more extraneous stimuli vying for student attention, the less likely they are to attend what it is you want them to learn. Therefore, declutter your classroom and your PowerPoints and stop talking over them when they are working.
3) Plan for thinking
As Daniel Willingham puts it: “memory is the residue of thought.” Therefore, we need to plan for thinking as much, or perhaps more than, doing. Ask yourself when planning your lessons, “what will they be thinking about during this activity?” We want their attention to be held by the thinking and for the thinking to be about the content, not difficult task-based instructions.
4) Keep it quiet (when you want close attention)
Noisy or quiet classrooms are not in themselves desirable or undesirable. However, if you want student attention to be full focused on something difficult that they need to practise independently then silence is golden. That way there is less splitting of their attention.
5) Take a snapshot
At a random moment in the lesson scan the class and ask yourself whether each child seems (as far as you can tell) to be attending to whatever it is you want them to be concentrating on. It seems an obvious one, but often as we engage with the demands of teaching we can lose sight of the big picture. If you find more than you were expecting have lost attention you have a starting point for where to focus your energies. Alternatively, you could ask a colleague to do this for you.
Chris Runeckles is an Assistant Headteacher at Durrington High School. He is also an Assistant Director for Durrington Research School and is delivering our training on Memory and Metacognition.