How to bring learning into sharper focus

Keeping pupils on track has long been a challenge and many believe attention spans are dwindling. Fight back by following this guide
3rd October 2014, 1:00am
Lyndsey Winship


How to bring learning into sharper focus

James has no attention span. As soon as you start talking, his eyes drift towards the windows, then to the floor. Then he starts tapping the desk. By the time you are handing out worksheets he has passed a note to Matthew, drawn a dog piloting a boat on the front of his exercise book and tied his own shoelaces together. It doesn't matter how many sanctions you throw at him, it makes no difference.

If you believe the media, our multitasking, multi-screen, multi-platform world is to blame: children are held hostage by constant stimulation and have lost the ability to focus on one thing. Many back this claim by highlighting the surge in the number of young people diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder over the past two decades.

There has certainly been an increase in the number of children being prescribed medication for the condition, and although it could be argued that we are increasingly pathologising normal behaviour, there does seem to be a general consensus that attention spans are getting shorter.

But wandering attention has always been a thorn in the side of teachers. So is the problem really getting worse or is it more to do with how we deal with it?

Certainly, there may be more to attention spans than teachers think. For example, there are two types of attention: transient, stimulus-driven attention, such as when someone shouts your name and you respond; and selective, sustained attention, when you decide to focus on a task and filter out other things. It is the latter type that is seemingly under threat and causing problems for teachers.

Variety pack

It may surprise you to learn that there is little agreement about what length of attention span is "normal". Our capacity for sustained attention is claimed to be anything from 4 seconds (less than half as long as a goldfish) to 40 minutes. Some suggest that a child's attention span in minutes is equivalent to their age in years, others claim it is three times as long. The most reliable evidence (for example, see bit.lyAttentionSpan1 and bit.lyAttentionSpan2) suggests that children aged 3 and 4 should be able to concentrate for about 10 minutes, and by age 5 that should rise to 10-25 minutes.

The problem in calculating these averages is that attention is a "highly personalised phenomenon", according to Vivian Hill, an educational psychologist from the University of London's Institute of Education. It varies between students but also for an individual, depending on their interest in a subject, whether they are tired or hungry and how much outside distraction there might be. There are also socio-economic and genetic factors and issues that arise in early development.

"For example, we know that children who are parked in front of the television from very early on have much more difficulty with selective attention than children who have read a lot of books and played a lot of games," Hill says.

Attention spans, therefore, are complex. If students in your classes are failing to pay attention, they are just as likely to be suffering from a lack of breakfast as a genetic disposition for a wandering mind. Hence, the solutions could be numerous.

As for whether attention spans are shrinking, hard evidence is difficult to find. However, one US study from 2012 reports that although teachers feel digital technologies have had a largely positive impact, 87 per cent believe they are creating an "easily distracted generation with short attention spans" (bit.lyDigitalDistraction).

What does seem clear and agreed upon is that the world is increasingly full of distractions, making it more challenging to stay focused. It is also true that wandering attention, whatever the cause, is a problem that teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. So what can you do?

Working it out

First of all, get students to practise focusing on specific tasks for increasing periods of time. "Attention works like a muscle," says psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: the hidden driver of excellence. "Use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows."

Teachers should also target working memory. As Dr Joni Holmes from the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge explains: "We work with children with attention problems, and what we know is that they have really poor working memory skills. They find it hard to remember what the goal of the activity is. They forget what they're doing and appear as though they're distractible."

It is thought that we can hold up to seven things in our working memory at any one time, although a child of 4 may be able to manage only two or three. Our working memory capacity may be up to 50 per cent inherited, but the good news is that we can all improve it, Holmes says. She has been testing computerised memory training - also known as brain training - with children completing working memory tasks every day. Feedback from teachers so far is that attention has improved as a result.

For those students with poor working memories, Holmes stresses the importance of reiterating the task in hand and fostering an environment where children feel it is OK to put up their hand and ask what they are meant to be doing, even if it's for the 10th time.

Hill says another area to review is the make-up of your lessons. Creating interesting, enjoyable tasks is an obvious way to maintain students' attention, but it is about more than just subject matter. The important thing is to use "as many different cognitive modalities as possible", Hill explains. This means visual prompts as well as verbal information, concrete aids to enhance abstract ideas and constant questioning of students.

"When you're doing a verbal introduction you really have to make sure that you've got the attention of all the children in the group," she advises.

Children with poor working memories can also benefit from props - a spelling sheet or Numicon blocks, for example - but beware, as too much stimulation can have a detrimental effect. For older learners dealing with essays and revision, Hill has a simple tip to pass on. "If you get to the bottom of the page and you can't remember what you've just read, you've tried to concentrate for too long. Look around, take your eye off the ball for a few minutes, then go back in," she suggests.

Holmes agrees: "Sometimes it's good to just stop and clear out your working memory and start again."

You could also reboot your students with a burst of physical exercise. In a 2010 study, children who took part in moderately intensive exercise for 15 minutes a day performed better in tests of concentration than those who didn't. The study's authors suggest it could be children's increasingly sedentary lifestyles, rather than advances in technology, that are to blame for shrinking attention spans (bit.lyExerciseStudy).

Hill also extols the virtues of making children aware of their thinking. "I would ask them: `How do you concentrate best? What are the things that make it more difficult for you?' " She has found that one of the key qualities of successful learners at primary school is that they will talk about the importance of listening and have strategies that help them to do so. With young children, Hill often works with an egg timer, rewarding those who can stay on task until the sand runs out and steadily increasing the time as the weeks go by.

So although concrete evidence about how attention spans are determined - and how long they should be - is absent, there are practical steps that teachers can take to assist students when attention begins to wane. The next time James' mind starts to wander, a short working memory exercise may be more appropriate than an hour's detention after school. Use the latter approach and after a few minutes he will probably forget why he's there.

What else?

Develop students' thinking skills with these matchstick puzzles.


Stimulate discussion with this PowerPoint full of intriguing questions.


Encourage pupils to make mental leaps with these thinking cards.


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