Phrases such as "pay attention" or "you need to focus" are classroom clichés. But over the last few decades, the concept of "attention" has been receiving a lot more attention from scientists.
The Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon wrote presciently about it back in the 1970s. He noted that in a world where information was abundant and free, whatever information consumed would become scarce. And what does information consume? Human attention – something that is a limited resource. As a result, advertisers will literally pay for us to pay attention to them: the measurement of attention has become a crucial part of their business.
But since the invention of the first smartphones about a decade ago, the cost of getting people’s attention has increased. While teachers don’t pay money for attention, many would agree that smartphones – and their associated distractions – have made it harder to get pupils to pay attention, too. Many popular apps employ experts in human psychology to hook young people in and to keep them coming back for more. It’s hard for the geography homework to compete against such an onslaught.
So, what can schools and teachers do in response? Some options include outright bans on mobile phones in the classroom. Given the emerging body of evidence around the potential that phones have to distract, this is an entirely legitimate response. Recent research has shown that even the sight of a smartphone can be a distraction that leaves you less focused.
The attention problem may also explain why many online education courses have such high drop-out rates, despite having polished and engaging multimedia content that can be accessed at any time. Perhaps part of the problem is that paying attention to a video or quiz on your smartphone or laptop is difficult when there are so many distractions – and apps – just a click away. Being taught by a human being in a phone-free classroom makes it much easier to concentrate and to complete the necessary tasks. In fact, a large part of assessment for learning, or formative assessment, is about checking to see if pupils are paying attention. In fact, Dylan Wiliam has said that he now wishes he’d called formative assessment "responsive teaching", as the word "responsive" more accurately captures the kind of micro-assessments and decisions that teachers are constantly making in a classroom, and which are much harder for online courses to replicate.
Making the most of apps
Still, some of the techniques that apps use to hold attention could also be used in the classroom. For example, Snapchat has been criticised for the "Snapstreak", which records how many consecutive days someone has used the app. The idea of the "streak" in apps is a powerful one – and something that can be used for good or bad. Psychologists recommend the approach for anyone trying to get a new habit to stick. It can be used to help people lose weight or stop smoking. In fact, schools have been using a related approach for decades by offering rewards for pupils who have 100 per cent attendance, encouraging them to keep attending school, even if they are feeling a bit under the weather. It is possible to imagine a similar approach being used to reward pupils who get a sequence of questions right about some material they have just been taught.
Attention is precious. We need to make the most of both old and new ways of monitoring and capturing it in the classroom.
Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths about Education. She tweets @daisychristo