How important is attention and motivation in education?

Tougher Minds Head of Education Andrew Foster, gives his reaction to a Parliamentary Select Committee asking a very important question earlier this week.

“Ah, there’s nothing more exciting than science. You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention… Science has it all.”

In The Simpsons episode, “Bart’s Comet”, Principal Skinner encapsulated the problem inherent in education. Science is exciting, but the work it requires is often not.

This is just as true when it comes to the arts. Why are we surprised that many children come to regard studying Shakespeare as an unwelcome imposition? Every play of his was written for adults who lived over four hundred years ago, to be performed by the country’s most accomplished actors. There are significant barriers to engagement that we should not underestimate.

I want every child to experience the awe that the best of science and literature has inspired. But I don’t imagine it will be ever be easy and in my experience it has always required a great deal of hard work.

My further thinking on this topic was prompted by the announcement this week that the Commons select committee on education are conducting an inquiry into the purpose of education.

Neil Carmichael MP, the Conservative chairman of the committee, was quoted in The Independent as saying: “In this inquiry we want to ask the question, what is education?

“What is the purpose of our educational system? Is it, for example, to prepare our young people for the world of work? Is it to ready our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to lead fulfilling lives? Is it to provide them with broad academic knowledge, based on a shared culture and values?”

The committee says it wants contributions on the matter from parents, students and all those involved in education by January 25th. My response to Neil’s question would be “all of the above”. However, none of those aims can be pursued anywhere near as well they might without the young person exercising self-control. And as it stands, the explicit teaching of this is far from widespread.

Whatever our definition of the purpose of education, we will run into the same problem as Principal Skinner. If we are to have more success than he did, we must help our pupils, our children understand why they, like us, will find it difficult to keep their attention on their long-term aims when short-term distractions are ever-present. For each of them, this is their most precious resource and we should equip them with the knowledge and understanding required to self-watch, observe and then set about breaking unhelpful habits and forming ones that contribute to the health, happiness and performance.

We all know a few Bart Simpsons, a few Lisas and many more that combine the qualities of the two. How they are is not how they must always be. They can, with our support, learn, change and flourish.

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