“The average millennial attention span is now 10 seconds, which means you might not catch the end of th…” ― Trevor Carss

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.

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