We tell them to concentrate. But do we teach them to concentrate?, asks Tougher Minds Head of Education, Andrew Foster.
I have never met a teacher that does not think the ability to concentrate absolutely crucial to pupils’ success. And yet when we look at childrens’ timetables, we see Maths, Music, French, Physics… an array of disciplines but crucially Concentration is absent.
“Ah, but through those lessons the pupils develop their ability to concentrate”, people might say.
Really? That’s not what I have observed. I have seen a very small number of pupils develop for themselves, through trial and error, methods for maintaining their focus. It is remarkable to watch these pupils study in the library, giving every impression that were the walls to crumble around them they would pause only to sweep the brick dust from their papers then continue. But the majority do not improve their concentration and we should not be surprised.
When we teach children quadratic equations, we explain the method. We do not just exhort them to make effort. We detail the steps that they can follow. There are steps to follow for improving one’s concentration and as it stands the vast majority of children will pass through school without ever being made aware of them.
Metacognition, the act of thinking about thinking, is key to paying more sustained attention in any given block of time. We can teach pupils how to plan their thoughts and actions during learning sessions, make use of techniques such as mental imagery and self-talk when they notice distraction occurring, and to reflect once the session is complete. We can also support them in developing these actions into habits, so they are performed as a matter of course and require less cognitive bandwidth.
Concentration is also key to motivation and confidence, qualities that again are highly-valued yet receive little or no direct teaching time. Motivation is increased by paying attention to one’s long-term aims over short-term distractions; confidence by paying attention to reasons to expect to succeed in those aims. If we teach children how to deliberately move their attention, then they can manage their motivation and confidence as well as their concentration.
It has been a fantastic privilege to work on the Tougher Minds programme with young people at a number of schools and help them begin to understand these concepts and techniques. Learning how to deliberately improve one’s concentration and practising to the extent that it becomes habit is not easy and takes time and effort. However, my experience is that there are few endeavours as teachers to which our time and effort would be better directed.