Minimising distractions in our classrooms

By Jack Tavassoly-Marsh – Vice Principal and T&L Lead

I am privileged in my current role, as teaching and learning lead, to visit many lessons, across all subjects each week. We have an open-door, non-judgemental culture that has allowed the focus to be on the development of teaching, rather than the historical lesson observation culture. That process led to some teachers wheeling out the ‘Ofsted’ lesson when needed, rather than focusing on the diet that students get from classrooms on a daily basis. Luckily, we, as a school, are a long way down the journey of moving away from this historical culture, moving away from judging whether learning has taken place, and moving towards our vision of ‘using research-informed practice to support students to learn most effectively over time’. This change of culture has moved us away from seeing students doing, to seeing students learning over time.

A tweet I posted on Friday evening on the learning conditions that I see in classrooms where students are working hard saw many replies, mostly interested in a potential post on my opinions, so here we go! 

A word of warning to start, what I meant by ‘learning conditions’ was conditions in the classroom that support students’ ability to focus their working memory on the task at hand, with zero distractions. All classrooms are mixed ability classrooms, whether the classes are set or not. Each student will be bringing very different knowledge and experience to each lesson. We have spent time focusing on ensuring that classroom conditions support all students, despite their prior knowledge/experience, to focus on the learning. Different levels of cultural literacy will no doubt affect a student’s ability to access the content, but perhaps more importantly, so will the classroom conditions. If they’re not right, it is likely to be the most disadvantaged students that struggle to focus. When teaching, we can always pinpoint the students that are likely to go off-task, and in my opinion, 95% of the time those students are the ones that have weaker cultural literacy. Students that have a stronger cultural literacy are able to complete the tasks, but nowhere near the level that they could achieve if they weren’t being distracted. Therefore all students require the conditions in the classroom to be conducive to learning taking place. For disadvantaged students this is especially important as without the conditions being conducive to learning, it is likely that the gap between them and their peers will widen. 

To start with, perhaps a few real life examples of when I am distracted from thinking about the task in hand. 

When driving to a new location and the sat-nav is on, I have to turn off the radio, so that I can focus on the instructions being given, so that I get to the right location, by taking the right route. If I am driving friends, they will turn the radio back on and turn the volume up. Yes, they are winding me up, and it works. I can feel my pulse increasing, my body temperature increases and a heated conversation, argument/rant ensues. I cannot concentrate on the task in hand! My friends have succeeded in their task! 

When I am sat on a train reading a book, I get easily distracted by those that are talking loudly on a the phone, eating loudly with their mouths open, playing games on their phone with noises. I lose my place repeatedly, and find myself re-reading lines, then paragraphs, and then I give up, put the book away and people watch, perhaps with a strong glare towards those that have spoilt the enjoyment of a train journey and a good read.

Lastly, my favourite TV show is on the box, let’s go for Game of Thrones. My pet hate is someone asking questions repeatedly through the episode. The first couple I answer, although inside my blood is starting to boil. The third question leads to the pause button being pressed. A non-verbal instruction to suggest annoyance, followed by answering the question. On the fourth occasion, the rewind function is used to non-verbally suggest annoyance, but hopefully showing the necessity to repeat the section of the programme as I have missed content due to a question being asked. On the rarity it gets to a fifth question, the channel gets changed, a rant ensues, and I will come back to it at a later point when I can focus. 

Another example is the rustling of popcorn in a cinema when trying to watch a film. The list goes on!

What’s the point? How does this relate to learning?

We are really easy to distract, and when we are focused on something we enjoy, we get annoyed when someone is taking our focus away from it. We also need to focus on something fully to gain success (finding the right location using a sat-nav) and understanding (being able to follow the plot and character links in GOT).

Therefore, as as school, we have focused on creating conditions in classrooms, during teacher-led instruction/explanation that ensure that all students are focused on the content being covered. This allows the working memory to focus on the content and the tasks at hand, reducing the extraneous load that can distract students from the task at hand. More on this from Adam Boxer here

It has been hugely important to get teachers to think about the why behind the classroom conditions, so that the what doesn’t simply become something to tick off. Why are students likely to learn more effectively when distractions are minimised? A strong understanding of Cognitive Load Theory and its application in an educational setting is key. Tom Needham has written some great blogs on CLT and its application in the classroom setting, starting with the first blog post here. Perhaps the most important point is the fact that we have a capacity as to how many things we can think about at once, and minimising distractions allows for the focus to be on the task. A great video by David Didau explaining the implications of CLT can be found in film 3 here.

When I asked students how many times their focus was disrupted in lessons the numbers were high, too high, if we are to support students to learn most effectively over time. Students mentioned the following as distracting their focus and concentration. 

– Students or other adults entering the lesson to give the teacher a message

– Students or other adults entering the lesson to get something from the room (textbooks etc)

– Students calling out in lessons, specifically during teacher questioning

– Students clicking the end of a pen in and out repeatedly

– Students scrunching up or playing with water bottles

– Students trying to talk to them whilst the teacher or another student is talking to the class

– Students playing with equipment in a practical lesson during a teacher or another student talking to the class

– Students making facial expressions to try and get another student to laugh

– Students writing notes to pass around the classroom

– Students getting up randomly to do something (like putting something in the bin) whilst the teacher or another student is talking to the class

How many of the list above disrupt the learning in your lessons? How many distractions have been missed out?

Therefore the focus for us has been on ensuring that distractions are minimised, whilst not creating a tick-list for teachers to follow, that maintains professional trust. Obviously, some distractions can’t be minimised – beware of the room change or the wasp in June and July! 

As mentioned, I get to visit many lessons across the working week, and the lessons that have students working hard and have students on task have the following characteristics. Distractions are minimised through these characteristics. 

– High expectations of student attitude to learning

– Positive relationships with the class and a clear enthusiasm for the subject. 

– Clear routines around teacher-led parts of lessons

– Clear transitions between teacher-led parts and students working

– Explicit understanding of what needs to be done when students are working

Specifically if digging a little deeper, when students are working hard and completely focused/concentrating on the task at hand, teachers are doing the following:

  • High expectations of student attitude to learning – negative body language is challenged consistently. Students are sat upright, and show a real desire to want to learn about the new content. Teachers are wanting students to show pride and enthusiasm for themselves and their subject. 
  • Positive relationships with the class and a clear enthusiasm for the subject – students are met at the classroom door, welcomed in to the classroom, and they are shown from the outset that the teacher can’t wait to get started again with them. Compliance with instructions uses names, and those not following are anonymously challenged, creating a respectful, relationships focused environment which students enjoy being in. 
  • Clear routines around teacher-led parts of lessons – students have a clear understanding of what is expected of them when the teacher is providing instruction/explanation. Students make eye-contact with the teacher, all equipment is on desks and not in hands, and silence is constant. Distraction is minimised with the sole focus on the expert in the room.
  • Clear transitions between teacher-led parts and students working – this is where distraction is minimised, so that all students have a clear understanding of the task to be done. A great blog post on this by Lee Donaghy called ‘Brighten Lines’ can be found here. I would also add that making these instructions explicit minimises the likelihood of students being distracted. I would add in two further points – make it clear which resources are required for the task, and where they can be found, as well as, making it clear to the students the expectations of whether the task is an independent task, a paired task or a group task. This makes it easier to challenge students that waiver from the expectations.
  • Explicit understanding of what needs to be done when students are working – questioning of the class to check for understanding and expected quality/output prior to the task being implemented. Not just assuming that students have listened in silence and therefore have understood. Chunked written instructions to support verbal instruction supports a student’s working memory, so that they can work on one thing at a time, rather than trying to remember the whole task. 

These characteristics have been something that we as a school have been working on. Obviously, there are some students within our demographic that struggle with eye contact, or require a fiddle toy and there is professional judgement and trust used when working with these individuals. Our challenge now is to ensure that, as a school, we are implementing these characteristics across the school. Consistency supports with minimising distraction. We’ve all been there when a student says ‘but Mrs or Mr X doesn’t do that, and let’s us do this and that’. This kills culture and allows for a further distraction to a lesson with a student challenging inconsistency, quite rightly!

Lastly, having clear and consistent school rules, supports teachers implementing these characteristics. One of our rules is ‘We let others get on with their learning’ which allows for teachers to challenge any distractions with positive language, whilst making it clear to students the implications of their actions. 

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. 


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