I was lucky during teacher training: few things came entirely out of the blue. One thing that totally floored me, though, was that students never truly focused, not even on short tasks. What my mentor said stuck with me: children’s attention spans have become fractured. When they watch TV, they’re also checking their emails, searching online and replying to instant messages. They need lots of structure to focus completely on a task.
I’m no Luddite; I'm not making a point about about technology, nor am I portraying a generational problem. This is not confined to Year 8 compulsory one-lesson-a-week RE on a wet Thursday afternoon. It affects older students and adults as well.
We are living with a culture that increasingly fails to support us, all of us, in activities that require deep focus. Yet focus is crucial, not just for high-quality learning, but also for happiness.
Go into any coffee shop in a university city, and you will often see people half-working, book in one hand, TV programme playing on their laptop. They’re not wholly at work. They’re not wholly having fun. They are trying to do both at once.
Perhaps this observation is unfair. Maybe they have come out of a demanding tutorial, or have just spent three hours in the library in silence. The point stands, though: at that moment, their attention seems to be split and, as I look up from my skinny sugar-free decaf latte, the telly seems to be winning.
The problem extends to us teachers, too; few and far between are the chances we get for real, focused work at school.
One of the nicest things about teaching is the variety and pace of the day, but it is also a continual challenge. For teachers, and I daresay many others, the working environment often prevents us from homing in on something that requires focus, thought and time.
At any point, your email can ping, students can knock on the door, or something can crop up. You’re also on a countdown to your next lesson or meeting.
So, when we sit down to plan an amazing lesson or give quality feedback, or plan department strategy, our attention is given conditionally: we think, maybe subconsciously, “I’ll work on this, provided nothing comes in and takes my attention.”
Yet, deep focus is what is essential for real thought and learning to take place. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of deep focus “flow”. When we achieve flow, the task:
gives us great clarity of purpose;
is doable, but still challenging;
takes us out of the everyday;
makes us less aware of time passing.
Csikszentmihalyi points out that the achievements of great civilisations are those that come about in a state of flow – what he calls humanity’s “ecstatic moments”. Real, high-quality thinking takes place when people are in this state. It is this kind of experience that we should be seeking to foster in our students.
If that were not incentive enough to focus on focus, it is not only learning that fares better when students become engrossed in their work.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, known for quantifying what contributes to happiness, cites “engagement” (not unlike “flow”) as being essential for our wellbeing.
To be happy, Seligman has shown, people need to feel there is something in their life in which they can truly engage, in which they see deep importance, to which they commit, and to which they devote their time. Engagement is central in creating meaning in people’s lives and a sense of achievement.
Seligman’s observation is hardly a new one. In the Buddhist tradition, for example, one of the essential steps on the path to overcome suffering is to adopt “right concentration”, attempting four stages of focus away from the distractions of everyday life – the four jhanas.
In the West, many are turning to techniques with a Buddhist basis, such as mindfulness. They do so with hope that they can achieve clarity of mind and focus in the face of a lifestyle that makes this increasingly difficult.
What is new in Seligman’s work is that we can quantify happiness. It can be measured. Recently, his work has been applied by educationalist Alejandro Adler in a small-scale study of school students in Bhutan where, famously, happiness is measured over GDP by the state.
Adler arranged for one group in each school to be taught a happiness programme, including the importance of engagement, alongside their academic programme. The other students, the control group, stuck with their regular academic-only curriculum.
Not only did the test group become happier, as one might perhaps expect, even in one of the “happiest nations on earth”, but their standardised scores improved, too. Happier students were also higher-achieving students.
Schools need to get good at focused, deep, engaging working for students to flourish, both academically and more generally. We should not simply be found blowing in the wind of the ambient culture. The reason that our job is such a responsibility is that we play a central part in creating culture.
If we assume the fast-paced, instant culture makes it impossible for students to focus, then it certainly won’t happen.
By placing focus at the centre of what we’re trying to achieve, we affect not just students’ learning power, but also their future learning; not just their current happiness, but also their ability to achieve happiness in adult life.
Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment, and head of RS and philosophy at Bedales School. She tweets @clarejarmy