Why aren’t they paying attention?
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Focus is a foundation skill for social and emotional intelligence. In this article I would like to discuss the crucial role played by focus and the strategies teachers can use to help students strengthen it.
‘Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.’ Dan Goleman
Without focus we become distracted, directionless, and we may even cut ourselves off from the environment we’re in. Focus is a key element in what we do, whether we’re playing tennis or running outdoors, playing the piano or chairing a meeting. It is also very central to any learning endeavour: if we don’t pay attention to what we do, we can’t learn anything.
However, focus is under siege these days: the level of distraction provided by technology and the unrelentless bombardment of millions of visual stimuli are unprecedented, and this concerns everyone, not just our students. Did you know that cumulatively, in the US, people check their smartphones 9 billion times a day? We reach for our phones in meetings, during a conversation with a friend and even at the restaurant while having dinner with our partner. Yes, we all know it’s rude, but still we can’t help it. This has enormous implications for teachers, obviously. Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman says that it is fundamental for leaders (and teachers are leaders) to ‘create a working environment that promotes a cultivation of focus’.
Now picture this: you are ready to teach a class, psychologically, mentally and physically ready, so you march into the classroom full of enthusiasm and anticipation. When your students arrive, however, you quickly realize their level of energy doesn’t quite match yours: their body language gives them away. They sit down looking listless, apathetic, lifeless, or maybe even agitated or upset.
So, you say to yourself: oh dear, they don’t seem motivated. But have you ever thought that this sort of behaviour may have nothing to do with their degree of motivation and that instead, a lack of focus could be the culprit? For example, it may be that some are still absorbed in the chat they just had with their friend before coming to class. It may be that some others didn’t do well on the test they took earlier and yet some others are worried about the test after your class. In a word, the students are unfocused. They’re not paying attention, they’re with you physically (in the sense that they’re sharing the same physical environment with you) but mentally, they’re miles away.
What is useful to remember at this stage is that if the students don’t pay attention to us, it is not because they don’t like us, or they don’t like coming to our class. None of that. It’s just that they’re paying attention to something else.
Have you ever played tug of war? Well, that’s how attention works: neurobiologists explain that attention is a fight of stimuli, one of them must prevail in the end. So, when the students are not paying attention, it’s because they’re distracted by something else (the chat, the test, etc). If we start the lesson when the students are unfocused, we would be wasting our precious time: no learning could ever register if the students are not paying attention. So, here’s what we should do: we should distract them from their distraction with another distraction, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot. In other words, we get them to focus, we help them tune in and then we start teaching.
What can we do?
The ability to stay focused can be enhanced by mindful practice: mindfulness meditation practices are an excellent, always accessible, and free method to strengthen our focus. What I’m talking about is three-minute ‘micro-practice’ of mindfulness. For example, you can try the following exercise (you can set a timer if you like):
- Ask your students to close their eyes and turn their attention to their thoughts and take stock. Next invite them to focus on the point of contact when their body meets their chair, or their feet meet the floor. Invite them to imagine that their thoughts are like clouds, swept away by the wind.
- Next ask them to be aware of their breathing: if they want to, they can say ‘I’m breathing in’ and ‘I’m breathing out’ to accompany every inspiration and expiration. Every time a thought appears, accept it and go back to the breath.
- Finally, ask them to wiggle their fingers and toes and to open their eyes.
Here’s another very simple exercise to help the students hone their attention:
- Pair off your students and assign roles (A/B). Ask them to sit facing each other.
- Instruct the As to count from 1 to 60 out loud. Instruct the Bs to count down from 60 to 1 out loud. Both do the counting at the same time. They should start and finish at the same time.
- Put the students in pairs.
- Ask them to use one pen and one sheet of paper per pair. They BOTH need to hold the same pen.
- Tell them that you will dictate a short paragraph and that they have to write down what you say.
- Make sure they’re both doing the writing.
It’s important to note that these exercises can be run at the start of a class or anytime you have a feeling the students’ attention is beginning to slump.
Sometimes when I do these exercises with a group of teachers, I’m often told that there’s no clear language aim, that this is all peripheral, etc. And that’s correct: there’s no explicit language aim per se, and that’s intentional. If I know that my students are distracted, the last thing I want to do is to ‘hit’ them with an exercise that requires language output. And I don’t want to start working on something new, either, because I know that I would lose them. Students must be ‘primed’ for learning, and putting them in a situation whereby they can concentrate is a good investment, in my opinion.