One of my favourite books about education is The Hidden Lives of Learners by the late, great, Graham Nuthall. Every time I return to it, I discover something new that influences how I teach.
One of the central messages that I have taken away is that learning is a complex business because the process is utterly invisible.
It is impossible to really know which of our pupils in the class has learned what we intended them to learn while the lesson is in progress. He shows that what the teacher believes has happened in the lesson is very different from what has happened in the mind of the pupils.
One of the reasons for this is that we can’t see where a pupil's attention has been during the lesson; and attention is the gateway to learning.
The importance of attention
The reason why attention is so important is that it governs what enters our working memory, and this working memory is limited (see Gathercole and Alloway, Understanding Working Memory).
If we try to pay attention to too many things, we quickly overwhelm this working memory.
Mike Hobbiss, school teacher and cognitive neuroscience researcher, cites Merrell et al in showing that a pupil’s ability to pay attention is strongly correlated to how well they do at school and may even be responsible for things like how happy people are as adults – see Pay attention! Why I think it’s important to study attention in school children.
One of our roles as teachers is to direct our pupils’ attention to those things that they need to think about. As Peps Mccrea writes in his fascinating book Memorable Teaching: “If we want to control what our students learn, we’ve got to be intentional and specific about what they should be attending to.”
So how do we do this?
We were lucky enough to have Mike Hobbiss come and meet with us at Heathfield Community College and share his insights fresh from completing his PhD in attention and education.
He has helpfully written up some of his advice in his post Attention in the classroom. My "best bits" from the research, and I’d like to reflect on how I have applied some of them in my classroom and the impact it has had.
1. The right environment
Firstly, it has helped me to realise just how important it is to create an environment in which pupils can concentrate. We have already as a college looked at the way classroom displays are used and ensured that they don’t create a distraction.
However, I have become much more aware of how other clutter creates visual noise in the classroom of a busy teacher and have started being much more proactive with the recycling bin.
2. Cut the noise
I have also thought again about noise in the classroom. When I started to teach the prevailing orthodoxy was that a noisy classroom was a healthy classroom and there was suspicion of pupils working in silence as being too oppressive.
However, I have found that the majority of pupils I teach not only welcome the chance to work in a quiet environment but flourish when given the opportunity to do so.
While this might not be a revelation to many teachers, it has meant that I now consider it more carefully when planning a lesson; what will be the expectation in terms of noise for this particular task and why?
3. Close observation
Another area filed under "well, duh" is that I have become much more interested in monitoring where pupils' attention seems to be. While I would always have made sure that no one was talking while I was talking, I think I was then mistaking their silence for attention.
I am now much more likely to scan the room while I am talking to make sure that I have their full attention and to pause or go backwards if I feel I have lost someone.
I’ll also target questions much more towards those pupils who I know struggle with attention to both gauge whether they are still with me and to help them maintain attention.
I wouldn’t say that the research I have read on attention has led to me reaching any conclusion not already gleaned from 16 years in the classroom, but what it has done is reinforced just how critical attention is and that it needs to be planned for in advance and acted on in the moment.
As a result of this my classroom is an increasingly calm, studious and happy environment where all pupils can thrive.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. He tweets @EnserMark