Behaviour

4. Directing attention

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

Video transcript

Presenter intro

To see a class of pupils engaged in a meaningful task, thinking hard, is really encouraging. The potential for learning is huge and it’s a brilliant sight. But behind this picture lies a lot of careful work and effort. It doesn’t happen by accident. Once teachers have set up a task successfully, they need to help their pupils to stay on task. There are simple but powerful strategies that teachers can use to direct attention and help their pupils be at their best.

Presenter main

We need to pay attention to something in order to learn it. And yet, paying attention isn’t always easy. It may be that the content is unfamiliar. Most people will struggle to keep hold of information when they know very little about it. It can be harder to pay attention to something that you don’t feel that you are good at. Competing distractions can get in the way – someone whispering behind you. But whilst paying attention can be difficult, the good news is we can help.

There are several strategies that teachers can use to help their pupils pay attention to learning. One thing that they can do is give manageable and specific instructions that clearly tell pupils what they should be doing and how, such as “complete the number sentence in silence”. They can also help pupils by focusing their attention on the most important aspects of a task: “remember to include the equals sign.”

Another strategy is to draw attention to the sorts of positive behaviours that are likely to enable pupils to succeed. Teachers can do this by identifying the positive behaviours they want to see in advance, explicitly naming the behaviour that will help and pointing it out when it occurs. For example, when setting up a task, teachers can include the specific behaviours that will benefit pupils, like making notes during paired work, or reading a passage twice before they start writing.

During a task, teachers can reinforce positive behaviours by looking out for them and describing what they see. A teacher might say: “Toby has got started on the task straight away”. Or: “Fatimah is making sure she is pausing to read her writing as she goes”. It doesn’t need to be a constant narration, but positive reinforcement can be really powerful.

In order to reinforce positive behaviours, teachers need to actively look for them. This means standing in a position where they can see all pupils and proactively scanning the classroom. Pointing out the positive behaviour of some pupils can encourage others to do the same.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, Dave Ruddle will model how to direct pupil attention. As you watch, pay particular attention to how does the following:

Rigorously maintains his expectations, and uses positive reinforcement to keep pupils on track.

Exemplification

Positive reinforcement is a great way of helping pupils to meet your expectations. For the purposes of this model, I am a primary school teacher with a class of year 6 pupils. It is the end of the lesson and I am getting my pupils ready to leave. After I have given my instructions, I am going to look out for positive behaviours.

“3, 2, 1, eyes on me. When I tap my shoulder, you are going to put your pencils back in the pot, put your paper in a pile in the centre of the table and stand behind your chair”. Taps shoulder.

Teacher stands still in a central position and scans the classroom, craning his neck in a slightly exaggerated manner. Gives a non-verbal gesture to remind a pupil to tuck their chair in.

“Red table have put their pencils in the pot. Green table has one pile of papers in the centre. Anna is already standing behind her chair in silence.”

Let’s unpick this example. To begin with, you will notice that I was standing in the middle of the classroom where I can clearly see all of my pupils. If I am going to spot positive behaviour, I need to be able to see it. I also want my pupils to know that I am looking out for it, so I was surveying the classroom in a slightly exaggerated way. Craning my neck like this. Having set out my expectations in the instructions, I am making it really clear to pupils that I expect them to be maintained.

Another important aspect of this model is that I narrated the positive behaviours that my pupils carried out. I used descriptive language and kept it short. I hope that by doing this, it will provide another opportunity for pupils in the classroom to know what they should be doing. I find that pointing out what one pupil is doing well tends to encourage other pupils to do the same.

Presenter next steps and summary

Now that you have seen a clear model of how to direct attention, read through the key ideas that we have covered in this video. Which of these key ideas do you think that the example illustrated the best?

  • Give manageable, specific and sequential instructions.
  • Teach and rigorously maintain clear behavioural instructions.
  • Monitor these values with gaze.
  • Vocalise positive examples of these expectations.

There are lots of ways in which teachers can support their pupils to pay attention to learning, and this is a really important part of our role. Choose one thing to practise, and practise doing it well.

Download this module (PDF)

Teaching challenge

Ms Silva knows what she wants her pupils to do and communicates it clearly. However, during her expositions or when pupils are working independently, she finds that some pupils simply drift off and stop paying attention to her or the task. What could she do to keep her pupils focused for more of the lesson?

Key idea

Attention naturally drifts and so teachers need to continuously monitor and actively direct pupil attention to maintain a classroom where all pupils succeed.

Evidence summary

Attention wanders

Ms Silva has high expectations of her pupils. She regularly communicates these and keeps her instructions clear and concise to help pupils meet these expectations (Gathercole et al., 2016). However, even this does not guarantee that her pupils will continue to pay attention throughout the lesson.

It is natural for the mind to wander after a time, particularly in busy environments such as the classroom (Sweller et al., 1998). Attention is also influenced by pupil motivation. For example, where pupils believe they may be unsuccessful, they can end up avoiding a task, while prior experiences of success make them more likely to persist at similar tasks (Gutman & Schoon, 2013).

Whatever the reason, Ms Silva needs to recognise that pupil attention wanders, so this is something she needs to take responsibility for and direct as needed to keep her pupils learning.

Directing pupil attention

A variety of strategies can be used to direct pupil attention. These include:

  • Modelling: Showing pupils exactly what paying attention looks like.
  • Reinforcing: Acknowledging or praising pupils who are demonstrating good levels of focus, being specific about what they are doing to earn this recognition.
  • Positively framing: Saying what you want to see from pupils rather than what you don’t want to see.

One useful distinction here is to appreciate the difference between praise and acknowledgement. Praise entails rewarding a behaviour that exceeds expectations, whereas acknowledgement entails showing that you have noticed a behaviour that meets expectations. Over-praising pupils who are merely following standard rules can inadvertently convey low expectations and hamper learning (Coe et al., 2014).

Pupil capacity to self-regulate their emotions and behaviour influences how well they can direct their attention towards specific tasks. No-one is able to completely self-regulate their attention at all times, and this ability varies between individuals. But self-regulation can be developed, improving pupils’ abilities to learn effectively (EEF, 2017). In addition, our behaviour is influenced by that of our peers. The more pupils that are paying attention, the more others will be encouraged to do so (IES, 2008). Effective teachers take account of these factors to help their pupils focus by using, for example:

  • Brief reminders: Issuing a quick reminder of what is expected, using consistent language and non-verbal signals. “We’re just waiting for one more person to face the front in silence, thank you.”
  • Private reminders: Having subtle conversations with individuals when it is only a few who need support to stay focused. “Hi Jenny, let me know if there is anything you need to help you get started.”
  • Benefit of the doubt: Communicating a belief that off-task behaviour is a result of enthusiasm for learning rather than purposeful disruption. “I know you are really keen to discuss this task with your partner but, to do a good job of it, first you need to put your pens down and face me.”

Pupil perceptions matter

Pupils tend to have a more positive classroom experience when they feel that their teacher is effective at managing the attention and behaviour of the class. This is important because pupils who have positive classroom experiences are more likely to feel wider life satisfaction and get better results. Pupils see effective teachers as those who (Rathmann et al., 2018):

  • Are aware of everything in class, instantly noticing when pupils aren’t paying attention.
  • Manage to quickly re-involve pupils if they don’t pay attention for a moment.
  • Have the class under control.

Therefore, as well as directing pupil attention, effective teachers might choose to be highly visible in how they do it. Being seen to actively monitor the room, direct attention and control the lesson can help pupils to feel that they are in a safe environment and pay even more attention.

Change takes time

Explaining a classroom routine just once or delivering a set of instructions without follow up is rarely enough to create lasting classroom change. For high expectations to become embedded, teachers need to continually remind and reinforce (IES, 2008).

Reinforcement is more effective when it acknowledges positive behaviour more often than highlighting negative behaviour. Over time, this approach has been shown to increase academic engagement and focus (IES, 2008).

Nuances and caveats

Acknowledgement, praise and reminders are powerful teaching tools for directing attention. However, there are also times when teachers simply need to issue a sanction or escalate the issue in line with the school behaviour policy. For example, when pupils are being defiant, inhibiting learning or risking the safety of others (IES, 2008).

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can direct pupil attention and increase learning by understanding that:

  • Self-regulation and pupil motivation can affect how pupils direct their attention, which naturally wanders over time.
  • Proactively monitoring, modelling and reinforcing helps direct pupil attention and keep them on task.
  • When reinforcement is positively framed it makes pupils feel safe and creates a more productive learning environment.
  • Teachers can redirect attention in the least intrusive ways. But if action taken by the teacher is sometimes clearly visible, pupils can feel that their teacher is more effective and experience a stronger sense of shared classroom values.

Further reading

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people. bit.ly/ecf-eef2

References

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching: Review of the underpinning research. Durham University. bit.ly/ecf-coe

EEF (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report. bit.ly/ecf-eef

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006). Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people. bit.ly/ecf-eef2

IES (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. bit.ly/ecf-ies

Rathmann, K., Herke, M., Hurrelmann, K. & Richter, M. (2018). Perceived class climate and school-aged children’s life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLOS ONE bit.ly/ecf-rat

Sweller, J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. G. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), 251–296.

Check

Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

Take the quiz

Reflect

Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Silva can direct pupil attention and increase learning by understanding that:

  • Self-regulation and pupil motivation can affect how pupils direct their attention, which naturally wanders over time.
  • Proactively monitoring, modelling and reinforcing helps direct pupil attention and keep them on task.
  • When reinforcement is positively framed it makes pupils feel safe and creates a more productive learning environment.
  • Teachers can redirect attention in the least intrusive ways. But if action taken by the teacher is sometimes clearly visible, pupils can feel that their teacher is more effective and experience a stronger sense of shared classroom values.

Reflect on the following questions

1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?

2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?

3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?