Attention is the Gateway to Cognition

Having watched the keynote presentation for researchED Surrey by Mark Enser, one of the key points that was made, was in relation to Mike Hobbiss’ post ‘Pay attention! Why I think it is important to study attention in school children’. Before reading on, please read Hobbiss’ post in its entirety.

The phrase that stood out was ‘Attention is the gateway to cognition’. Hobbiss wasn’t the first to coin the phrase, and it appears that the first mention of this phrase was in a paper titled ‘The role of attention in creating a cognitive system. An International Workshop on Attention in Cognitive Systems’ (Taylor, J.G; 2007). The phrase makes concrete what is is actually somewhat obvious: that if students aren’t concentrating and are not giving learning their full attention, then their ability to understand the content will be impacted.

Hobbiss makes the following summary points with regards to student attention:

1. Attention is the gateway to memory… and everything else!

2. Attention directly impacts school attainment across the whole spectrum – not just at the lowest end

3. Attention may mediate other key variables which contribute to school success

4. Attention skills likely impact on our happiness

For cognition to be effective, students need to be paying attention to instructions, explanations, questioning phases, live modelling and scaffolding opportunities to have the level of understanding of the content to allow them to do the best they can in lessons. It reads quite simply, but getting students to focus their attention on the learning for the entirety of a lesson is complex, and requires a knowledge and understanding of effective expert teaching. From student reports, the three highest factors that cause inattention in the classroom are: (Hobbiss, 2019)

  1. Other People
  2. Mind Wandering
  3. Background Noise

It is therefore pivotal to minimise students having opportunities to be distracted by other students, students need to be challenged to participate and think continuously to stop the mind wandering, and learning conditions in classrooms need to be managed carefully. Indeed, in the recent ‘Great Teaching Evidence Review’ by Best Evidence in Education, two of the core areas for teachers to put their efforts into to maximise improvement in teacher effectiveness are; ‘maximising opportunity to learn’ and ‘activating hard thinking’.

The rest of this post looks at potential strategies that can we use in the classroom to ensure that students are paying attention. It is obligatory that we focus on aspects of classroom practice that we as teachers can control. Whilst we cannot control external factors that could lead to mind wandering, we can put in place strategies that make this less likely to occur.


Routines that have been taught to students and practised until they are always followed allow students to know what is expected of them and can focus on content, allowing their thought process to be on the learning, than having to think about what is expected of them/what they should be doing. When students have a strong understanding of what is expected of them throughout aspects of the lesson, lesson time and therefore learning time is maximised.

Teachers can build routines for many aspects of classroom practice:

  • How students enter the classroom
  • Under what conditions the first task is carried out
  • How a teacher gains whole-class attention
  • How students should participate in paired discussion
  • How students should work during independent practice
  • How students should listen during question and answer phases
  • How a teacher transitions from the instructional phase to students working
  • Using questioning strategies such as ‘cold call’, ‘no opt out’ and ‘right is right’
  • How students exit the classroom

Do students enter your classroom with purpose, with sole attention on the first task? To ensure that inattention isn’t an issue at the very start of lessons, students need to be taught, how you as the teacher, expect them to enter and expect them to undertake the first task. Is there a consistent approach to the first task, that allows students to focus their attention on learning, rather than having to think about what the task is asking of them? When students have had the methodology and reasoning behind a similar first task explained to them, perhaps in relation to theory on retrieval practice, through interleaving and spaced practice, there is a shared understanding within the room as to why the first task is set as it is. Students know that they are challenging themselves to remember learning that has happened, and will be referred to during the lesson, and therefore there is a collective understanding of the importance of the task being carried out under silent conditions, to allow individual students to check their understanding of content. A simple strategy to put in place is a ‘Do Now’ activity, that is retrieval based. The more complex task is to explain to students the reasoning behind this, and to then practice and insist upon the conditions being conducive to students checking their understanding. A consistent ‘Do Now’ methodology that students are expecting upon entry supports the strategy to reduce inattention.

Inattention is further reduced if there is a slick method for gaining whole-class attention. I have written more about a potential strategy (STAR) here. If the three highest factors for students being inattentive are the interaction with other people, mind wandering and background noise, then an approach to gaining whole-class attention that works quickly is critical. However, for it to work it has to have been explained to students why it is important and it has to have been practised to the point where students always get it right. With this in place all transitions between a teacher talking and students working are slick, maximising learning opportunities and reducing the likelihood of inattention.

Inattention is further reduced if teachers focus on their instructional phase and explanation phase of lessons. Explanation needs to be clear, concise and build upon student’s prior understanding or schema. If we are to reduce the likelihood of students’ minds wandering, it is critical that any explanations are planned to allow students to focus their attention solely on what the teacher needs them to focus upon. Too easily teachers go off at tangents, or add in excess information, that in all probability will lead to some students losing their attention. The rest of this post could be written on how to explain clearly and concisely to support student’s cognitive load, but to read more widely on the subject, please find more information here. Alongside great explanations, teachers must have a strong understanding of their subject, ensuring that common misconceptions are planned for, and that content is sequenced in a manner that supports students’ schema. Inattention is reduced if students clearly understand the content, and avoiding the curse of knowledge. This is when a teacher forgets how challenging the content was to learn as a novice the first time around, and assumes a level of knowledge from the students, rather than finding out the level of knowledge and breaking it down and sequencing accordingly.

Slick transitions that explicitly set expectations of the work and of the learning environment during the task also reduce the likelihood of students losing attention. Too often the transitions between a teacher-led part of a lesson and students working aren’t explicit enough. This leads to chances of student’s mind’s wandering, and for background noise to creep up. A strategy that supports teachers being more explicit with their transitions is a ‘Teach Like a Champion’ technique known as ‘Brighten Lines’. Transitions need to be visible and crisp. I use the COTS acronym to ensure that transitions are crisp and explicit.

  • Conditions
  • Outcome
  • Time
  • Support
  1. Explicitly state the conditions you expect students to be working in. Is the task an independent task, a paired discussion, a group task? It is important to mention at this point that as a teacher we should never assume that students understand how to work independently in silence, how to have a paired discussion and how to work as a group, and that all three options should be explicitly modelled to students and practised so that students know exactly what is expected of them for each type of task, allowing students the chance to focus on the learning, rather than what is expected of them. This minimises inattention opportunity from background noise, mind wandering and other people.
  2. Clearly show/state the outcome of the task. Provide written cues or chunked instructions that go alongside a verbal instruction/explanation for students to refer back to. Outcomes could be as simple as ‘after the paired discussion I expect three written bullet points’ ready for any of you to feedback. Explicitly stating the outcome allows students to focus solely on what they need to do to meet that, rather than trying to work out what is expected of them, perhaps leading to inattention. through discussion with others.
  3. Time-bonding the task not only sets high expectations, but reduces the chances of students going off task. Setting tasks for a shorter period of time than expected allows the teacher to manage any issues with inattention, and ensures there isn’t a period of time when some students have completed a task and are waiting. This is especially true for paired-discussion.
  4. Support/struggle – make it clear what students are to do if they need support.

Finally, before setting the students off, check the students understanding of the task through a cold call question on each of the aspects from the acronym, and then have a clear ‘go’ signal that is rehearsed and planned to again create a crisp and visible start to the task. Through checking that all students have understood the task, the conditions, the time, the outcome and what to do if they are struggling, inattention during the task is reduced, as the task has been set in a manner that supports students’ cognitive load.

Lastly, one of the most important strategies a teacher can work on to reduce inattention in lessons is increasing ratio: specifically the ratio at which students are participating and thinking hard in lessons. If the ratio of both of these aspects is very high, then we as teachers can have strong confidence that attention is focused upon the learning. Building ratio can be done through several strategies:

  1. Cold call/wait time – is when a teacher asks a question and then pauses before saying the name of the student they wish to answer the question. This increases thinking ratio as it stops students switching off or zoning out and not listening to the question when they hear the name first, before the question. Providing wait time prior to saying the name of the student you wish to answer the question allows students to think about their answer, increasing thinking ratio.
  2. No Opt Out – is when a teacher doesn’t accept an answer such as ‘I don’t know’ and will hold the student accountable to coming to the correct answer through providing cues or listening to the correct answer as it is teased out of fellow students. For the latter, through returning to the original student who said ‘I don’t know’ and asking them to repeat the answer or develop the answer further, there is accountability on the student to continue to participate and think during the questioning phase, thus reducing inattention and mind-wandering that can happen when a student simply states ‘I don’t know’ or similar to a question.
  3. Everybody writes – is when a teachers asks all students to write down an answer at the same time, and then can use cold call to get a response. This ensures that all students are participating with the question and have an answer to hand if needed. Again this increases participation ratio and thinking ratio, reducing the likelihood of inattention.
  4. Write/think/pair/share – similar to above and a little different to the well known think/pair/share, is to get students to commit an answer in writing first, before then going into the think/pair/share discussion, thus ensuring that all students participate and think, again increasing the ratio of both
  5. Mini whiteboards – using mini whiteboards and asking students to show their responses as a class ensures that students all participate with the questions. A minor challenge here is to create a routine that ensures that students aren’t checking what their peers have written and they are solely focusing on their answer. Again this raises participation and thinking ratio.

Adam Boxer put together a fantastic presentation for researchED Norwich on ‘ratio’ and this is a must watch to reduce inattention through other people, mind wandering and background noise. The video can be found here.

Whilst there are aspects of students’ inattention that we cannot control due to external factors, the strategies above show that there are lots of aspects of effective classroom practice that allow us to control the likelihood of students becoming inattentive in lessons and what we can do to minimise this, maximising opportunities to learn and activate hard thinking.

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