How many times have you said this as a teacher I wonder? A fair few thousand I bet.
But paying attention is hard work and especially for children. Yet we have a go at them for not being on task or for getting distracted. Most of the time this is our fault and we are no different.
An activity has to be pretty damn absorbing to give it attention for more than just a few minutes. Our minds struggle to focus because they are always looking for a better offer elsewhere and who can blame them.
The “Decoupling Hypothesis” states that when we wander off, the brain’s resources are shifted away from our surrounding environment and are redirected to our internal world in order to support our thoughts.
Teachers are always looking for wild and creative ways to engage children and to be honest, that’s the easy bit. Sustaining this engagement is the real problem because once they start to drift then they really start to go AWOL. Attention is our brain’s boss.
Teachers are just the same. Imagine the pleasurable experience of a badly run staff meeting. It doesn’t take long before your thoughts and attention turn left and then right looking for something better to do. What does that look like? Well, here’s an MRI scan of some mind-wandering from the University of York:
Mind-wandering weakens cognitive performance. Yet it isn’t all bad because it can inspire creativity too. Wandering allows us to mentally time travel and enjoy the experience of wondering.
It might well be that the tasks we are giving children to do just aren’t cutting the mustard so mind-wandering enables them to escape the misery. A study by Levinson, Smallwood and Davidson (2012) indicated that a wandering mind is a form of a mental workspace that allows us to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously. Jonathan Smallwood says,
What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing.
Mind-wandering, day-dreaming and zoning out are what we do best and no one can blame children if they aren’t paying attention. Why should they if an activity is planned for longer than 10 minutes. And that’s another thing. What we plan for has to tune into what we can cope with. Chunking what we do makes more sense if we want to get to our final destination because we are not overloading it and we are giving it a chance to breathe. Keeping on task is important but timing is everything because the longer we do something, the more likely we are to opt-out, forget and make errors. When we have lapses in attention then we can miss important pieces of information which gets in the way of our ability to make sense of complex problems and situations.
But what else can we do?
As neuroscientist Amishi Jha says in her TED Talk, we need to pay attention to our attention. She suggests that one key way to improve our focus is to practice mindfulness. She says,
From our work, we’re learning that the opposite of a stressed and wandering mind is a mindful one. Mindfulness has to do with paying attention to our present-moment experience with awareness. And without any kind of emotional reactivity of what’s happening. It’s about keeping that button right on play to experience the moment-to-moment unfolding of our lives.