Eye contact is important. It is particularly important in schools. But here’s the thing: it’s not as important as you probably think it is. And teachers need to recognise why. Because in demanding eye contact from students, educators could be having the opposite effect on learning than one they intended.
Although eye contact is not prized as highly in all cultures as it is in the West, and although some people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can struggle with it, in general, there are some important uses for eye contact in society.
For example, it appears to play a significant role in a concept known as “theory of mind”, whereby people can anticipate the mental states of others.
Eye contact is also particularly important when people are engaged in conversation. It allows us to seek and locate information; as the speaker, we can obtain immediate feedback from the reactions of the listener.
Are they, for example, paying attention to what we are saying or is their attention wandering? Breaking eye contact can also mean that the listener wishes to speak, as well as to indicate that the speaker has finished and is waiting for a response. Adults and older children understand these cues and react to them unconsciously. Eye contact is therefore important for the smooth flow of the conversation and thus key for the classroom.
But does insisting on eye contact always enhance attention and improve learning outcomes? Not necessarily. Eye contact – and its role in interaction and learning – is a lot more nuanced than you might think.
In some circumstances, eye contact can be detrimental to learning. You might have noticed that when you’re talking to someone, it’s often difficult to maintain eye contact. You might also have noticed that when children are addressing the class or are attempting to answer a challenging question, they will shift their gaze away from their audience.
Psychologists call this behaviour “gaze aversion”, and it serves an important role in the processing of cognitive information. Excessive eye contact during conversations is associated with increased cognitive load; that is, the amount of mental effort being used in working memory. Essentially, in trying to maintain eye contact, we limit the use of our working memory and that hinders our potential to learn.
In a 2016 study, Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura, of Kyoto University, found that maintaining eye contact disrupted participants’ ability to generate verbs in a word task, while previous research indicates that eye contact can interfere with tasks involving visual imagery. If we are trying to form a visual in our mind while attempting to maintain eye contact, the visual processing system within working memory becomes overloaded and performance suffers.
In 2006, Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon and her colleagues at the University of Stirling noted that children aged 4-6 were more likely to engage in gaze aversion when they were carrying out a task they found difficult or one that was new to them.
Indeed, research has discovered that our tendency to look away from someone’s face increases when questions become more difficult. Some studies have even found that closing your eyes while being asked a moderately difficult question can improve performance.
What does this mean for teachers? Rather than being an act of disrespect or disinterest, a student breaking eye contact may be a visible sign that learning is taking place, allowing the thinker to exert control over his or her own cognitive processes.
So does this mean teachers should encourage the breaking off of eye contact in certain circumstances? I would say yes. Giving children permission and even teaching them when to employ gaze aversion, is as important as insisting they maintain eye contact in other situations.
But overall, my plea would be for teachers to simply understand that eye contact is a lot more complicated than it first seems and that looking away should not automatically be followed by a “look at me while I am talking to you” response. It is about having an appreciation that while eye contact is a vital part of non-verbal communication and certainly useful in learning situations, equally vital is the ability to break eye contact.
Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and teacher. He is the author of The Emotional Learner and co-author with Jonathan Firth of Psychology in the Classroom, both of which will be published by Routledge in 2017. He tweets @marcxsmith