The Primacy of Attention in the Classroom

“We learn what we think about, and what we think about is determined by what we attend to.”[i]


Attention is a fundamental, essential component of the learning process. Every teacher will need to gain full attention at least once per lesson. A routine for gaining attention, that is explicitly taught to and expected from all students would be helpful for all teachers (and students). This is a particular area of difficulty for teachers new to the school, NQTs, and teachers who struggle in general with behaviour. By adopting a whole-school approach, all schools could ensure that all students know the routine and use it, even with unfamiliar new teachers and cover teachers.  As Tom Bennett recommends, “any area of general behaviour that can be sensibly translated into a routine should be done explicitly.[i]


As obvious as it sounds, ‘teachers need to have the full attention of students in order to give them the best chance of learning what is being taught’, it does not happen in every lesson, far from it. There is one very clear reason why this is: teachers find it hard to gain full attention from 100% of students when they want or need to. Factors influencing this are myriad, but could include the tendency for some children to want the easy option of not having to concentrate on something difficult and a general lack of respect for adult authority.


There are routines that schools commonly use for gaining attention and I think all schools should adopt one. Routines like this are low impact on teacher workload and have a high impact on students’ learning. In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov recommends[ii]:



Sit up

Track the speaker

Ask and answer questions like a scholar

Respect those around you





Sit up


Ask and answer questions

Nod your head

Track the speaker


I use SLANT and change the N to ‘Nothing in your hands’, and emphasise that putting your hand up is essential to asking and answering questions.


If all teachers were to use this strategy and all students were explicitly taught it, with regular sessions reminding them about it, then I think this could be a powerful leaver for improving the quantity and quality of learning that happens in lessons.


“Whatever students think about is what they will remember”[iii]

In every lesson we expect our students to do something that most adults avoid doing all the time, we expect them to think. As Dan Willingham states, “thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain.”[iv]

As adults, we generally operate on autopilot. A helpful analogy here is the difference between learning to drive and being able to drive having already learned. Students are in the learning stage, adults are in the having learned stage. Learning to drive is slow, unnatural, effortful and error-prone. Once you learn to drive, you can drive long distances and not recall the journey you’ve made, it’s become automatic and fluent.
Efrat Furst has written with great clarity about how we learn new things, from a cognitive science perspective. Successful learning requires students to combine new information from the teacher (the environment) with their existing knowledge (their long-term memory) in their working memory. This then needs ‘deep processing’ to transfer to their long-term memory. ‘Deep processing’ is things that teachers encourage in their lessons: thinking hard about the content, practise, and desirable difficulties. This is Furst’s image[v]:

Furst how we learn

Learning has been defined in cognitive science, as a change in the long term memory; “if nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”[vi] At school, students are trying to combine the new ideas they are being taught with their prior knowledge, in their working memories, in order to transfer this to their long-term memories. This is, from the perspective of cognitive science, successful learning.

At this point, it is paramount to remind ourselves of the extremely limited capacity of our working memories. It is estimated that everyone, however clever, can only hold 4 – 8 items at once in their working memories. This is a good image, from Oliver Caviglioli[vii] to represent our working memories:

Working memory dual coding
Given that our working memories are so limited in capacity, it is sensible for teachers to be careful with what students are thinking about.
What students are thinking about in their working memory is commonly called ‘cognitive load’. Adam boxer explains[viii] the main factors that influence cognitive load as ‘task demand’ and ‘available resources’. The task demand is determined by the subject matter we are teaching, and the available resources are things like what the students already know about the subject. Increase the task demand and you increase the cognitive load, increase the available resources and you decrease the cognitive load. Boxer uses this equation:

Cognitive load equation

For the purposes of this document, I have discussed the role that attention plays as an available resource for the students. The more of students’ attention that is on what is to be learned, the more available resources they have to learn and the greater the possibility they will learn what is being taught. “Attention …  is the gatekeeper of our Working Memories”[ix]

In addition to this, there is considerable evidence to suggest that “It is almost impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at the exact same time”[x]. If students are trying to catch the eye of one of their peers, or doodling in their book, or looking out the window, then they are not paying attention to what is being taught, “when you feel like you’re multitasking, or paying attention to two things at once, you’re actually switching back and forth between the two things you’re trying to pay attention to, and… that diminishes the efficiency for both of the tasks”[xi] This points to one very good reason for using a sanction such as a detention, if a student or group of students are being disruptive then that seriously affects the chances of the rest of the class giving the attention they need to to the lesson. In short, “attention is the primary gatekeeper of learning and so the ultimate commodity of our classrooms.”


[i] Schweppe & Rummer, 2013 as quoted in Learning: What is it, and how might we catalyse it? By Peps Mccrea published by The Institute of Teaching/ The Ambition Institute, 2018

[i] Tom Bennett, 2017, Creating a Culture

[ii] Doug Lemov, 2015, Teach Like A Champion 2.0

[iii] Willingham, 2009, Why Don’t Students Like School

[iv] Willingham, 2009,

[v] Efrat Furst, website accessed 14-6-2019,

[vi] Kirschner, Sweller, Clark, 2006, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work

[vii] Oliver Caviglioli,

[viii] Adam Boxer, blog: Simplifying Cognitive Load Theory, website accessed on 14-6-2019,

[ix] Peps Mccrea, 2018, Memorable Teaching

[x] Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019, Understanding how we learn, A visual guide

[xi] Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s