Concentrating on something intently enough to learn is hard work,
meaning that learning something requires someone to pay
attention. Most teachers and psychologists would therefore agree
that the ability to focus and sustain attention is crucial to student
I remember being told years ago that the maximum attention span of an adult was 45 minutes and that was long before the arrival of mobile technology and social media made instant gratification realistically possible and rendered us all more impatient. In my business career presentations would never run for more than 45 minutes at a stretch. Writing and editing, I schedule a break every 45 minutes.
Nowadays that average attention span has shortened to, according to what research you read, anything from 14 minutes to 8 seconds. Research conducted in 2017 for Skipton Building Society suggested that when watching television the average British adult will focus fully only for 10 minutes before shifting focus, usually to look at a mobile phone. Motorists, scarily, will focus fully on the road for
10 minutes and then will go into autopilot. In a meeting, staff will concentrate for an average of 13 minutes before zoning out and thinking about something else.
Compared with that, some estimates of a student’s ability to focus in school for 10-20 minutes seem rather optimistic.
In ‘Teens and Tweens: A Brain-Compatible Approach in Reaching Middle and High School Students” T Philip Raleigh recommends 20 minutes as the maximum time a teacher can reasonably expect students to stay in a “positive learning state” without a change of stimulus.
Yet in many schools each lesson lasts an hour, and if students can’t manage to concentrate for all of that time then we say they’re poorly behaved, rather than recognising that they are conforming to a well-known reality. Unless we want everything to fall apart in our lessons, we would be sensible to plan our lessons to provide variety. 10-15 minute activities seem a good place to go, with plenty of variety. Any more than 15 minutes and we are inviting off-task behaviour.
Teenagers are biologically programmed to rebel against adult authority; they are biologically required to take risks, to be irresponsible, not to think too much of the consequences of their behaviour. Otherwise those young Neanderthals would still be squatting in the caves, clinging to Mummy Neanderthal instead of going out to dice with wild animals and risk death in order to hunt for the family, and the upshot would be that everyone would starve.
Everybody accepts that teenage is a time of rebellion and pushing the boundaries, but we still conflate this biological reality when it’s exhibited as kids
being ‘difficult’, by which of course we mean difficult for us.
Now, I’m not saying that we should just expect them to be rebellious and challenging and go with it as they abuse their teachers and throw chairs all over the place, but as the adults in the room, we do need to think carefully about developmental milestones when we plan the activities we use to get to an end,
and consider the way in which we talk to students and the behaviour management strategies we are going to use in our practice.
The tenets of Strictly Positive Teaching dictate that we, as teachers, in every aspect of our teaching seek to achieve our goals by harnessing the way students work, rather than bludgeoning them over the head with the way we did it, the
way we feel it should be done and then complaining that the kids are being a pain.
These techniques are known in vague terms to nearly everybody but not necessarily put into practice in as consistent a way as is needed for success. As with any set of techniques, it is easy to try them out half-heartedly for a while and then abandon them proclaiming that “they don’t work” or it’s “too much like hard work”. Some people just plain get them wrong. But for some they have, as they did for me, transformed their classroom practice.