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
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.