You can only focus on one thing at a time

A lens refracts light to focus on one point (the focal point, F); our brains work in a similar way

In this week’s assemblies, I have been going through the Behaviour for Learning Top 5 we are focusing on this term:

  1. Strong start: We arrive on time, line up and enter the classroom calmly
  2. Full attention: We are immediately silent and face the speaker when called to attention 
  3. Full effort: We apply ourselves with our full effort to the learning tasks set
  4. Full focus: We focus all our attention on the learning tasks set
  5. Calm finish: At the end of the lesson we wait in silence for the member of staff to dismiss us

Part of the assembly demonstrated why it is important that we focus all our attention on the learning tasks set. The reason for this is that it’s not possible for the human brain to think about two different tasks at once.

Of course, it is possible for us to multi-task. We can walk and talk at the same time, or we can eat a snack whilst reading a book. This is possible because some of the process have become automatic in our brains: they are happening without us really thinking about then. In the examples above, the walking and eating are automatic – we can do them without thinking about them – meaning that our brain’s attention can be freed up to think about the talking or the reading.

What we can’t do, is actually think about two attention-demanding things at once.

We might think that we can – but actually what is happening is that our brain focuses on one thing, and then switches to the other thing, and then switches back to the first thing. This process is called code switching, and some people can do it faster than others – but what we can’t do is focus on two things at the same time. Like the illustration of the cats above, our focus shifts from one thing to another – but it can only be on one thing at a time.

My favourite demonstration of this is the card-sort-and-maths-questions task, as shown to students (with some helpful volunteers) in the assemblies this week.

In this demo, a willing volunteer is given a standard deck of cards and asked to sort them into suits, with each suit in number order, as shown in the illustration above. This is a simple enough task, but it requires the volunteer to think about it to make sure they identify the card, recognise it, and place it appropriately on the table in front of them. The audience watches the volunteer sorting the cards.

Then, I introduce a complication: I ask the volunteer to answer some simple mental arithmetic questions. For example:

  • What is half of 90?
  • What is 37 more than 60?
  • What is half of 8.2?
  • A television programme starts at 11:05 and ends at 12:15. How long did the programme last?
  • Three fifty pence coins have a mass of 18 grams. What is the mass of one fifty pence coin?
  • What is half of 144?
  • What is double 3.6?

Again, on their own these questions are all solvable – with a little bit of thought. So, what happens when I ask the volunteer the mental arithmetic questions, whilst they are sorting the playing cards?

Their hands stop moving.

If they try to keep sorting the cards, they can’t answer the arithmetic question. If they try to answer the arithmetic question, they can’t keep sorting the cards. It’s no reflection on your mathematical ability (or your card-sorting ability, for that matter): it’s a simple psychological fact that your brain can’t do both things at the same time.

So, why does this matter?

The reason why full focus is the fourth item on our behaviour for learning top 5, is that we need to concentrate fully on the task in hand if we are going to do it well. If something distracts us, or takes our attention away from the learning task, we simply cannot be thinking about the task – and therefore, we are not learning effectively. We are like Dug, the dog from the Pixar film “Up”, whose attention is dragged away from the conversation at hand whenever he sees a squirrel…

For our students to be successful, they need to avoid their own personal “squirrels” – the things that might distract them – to ensure that they stay focused on the learning at hand. That requires self-discipline, concentration and effort, but the impact on learning is significant.

And that is why we have made it our focus this term.

Assembly: Concentration

This assembly owes much to a presentation on the brain given by Bradley from Inner Drive (@Inner_Drive) at #GrowEx last year, and this excellent TED talk by Peter Doolittle (@pdoopdoo) on working memory shared by Huntington Learning Hub (@HuntingtonLHub). It’s well worth a watch:

The PowerPoint slides are shared at the bottom of this post.

We start with a test of working memory (see the video for this test). I am going to ask you to remember five words just by holding them in your mind. Here are the five words:

  1. Tree
  2. Motorway
  3. Mirror
  4. Saturn
  5. Electrode

Whilst you are remembering those five words, I am going to set you three challenges.

  1. What is 23 x 8?
  2. On your left hand, use your thumb to count your fingers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then back again 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
  3. Now in your head recite the last five letters of the English alphabet backwards.

How many of the five words that I asked you to remember do you still have in your memory? Does anyone still have all five?

The reason why many of you will have forgotten some of the words that I told you only a minute or so ago, is that the capacity of our working memory is limited. It can only hold so much information at any one time. Daniel Willingham provides a simplified model of the brain here:

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

In our test, the Environment (me) provided some information which was fed into your working memory. You didn’t do much with that information, and immediately afterwards I distracted you with three more activities which demanded space in your working memory. Little wonder, then, that when I asked you to return to the original information (the five words I asked you to remember), some or all of it had been pushed out of your mind without ever having made it into your long-term memory.

focus-and-concentration

There are some more demonstrations that will help us understand why sustained concentration on the task in hand is important. The first is to do with focus, and multitasking. You might think that you are really good at multitasking, and that you can easily do two, three or more things at once. Where some of those things are automatic – walking and talking, for example – that is probably true. However, your working memory can only focus on one cognitively demanding task at a time. In that way, it’s like focusing a lens – you can only focus on one thing at a time.

You can only focus on one thing at a time

You can only focus on one thing at a time (when in doubt, reach for the cat gifs)

Let’s take this optical illusion as an example. In the picture, the man’s face can be seen looking to the right, or looking straight ahead. See if you can see both!

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both - but not at the same time.

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both – but not at the same time.

Now try to see both at the same time. Your brain switches from one to the other – it will only let you hold one interpretation of the picture in your head at one time. This is what happens when you try to multi-task. Your working memory actually switches from one task to the other. This is called context switching, and you may be able to do this quickly (there is some evidence that women are better at it than men), but you are not multitasking. You can’t.

Finally, here’s a demonstration of context switching in action. I need a volunteer from the audience to take this box of multicoloured balls, and arrange them in rows of four in the order of the colours of the rainbow. At the same time, they will be solving some Mental Maths Questions from the KS2 Maths SAT Buster book.

I know this challenge well, because Bradley used me as his volunteer at #GrowEx when conducting the same experiment. Essentially, your brain can either focus on arranging the balls, or on doing the maths – but not both. As I was trying to arrange the balls, I got simple questions wrong. When I thought about the maths, my hands stopped moving. My working memory would not allow me to do both things at the same time. I felt embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have; I was simply demonstrating a human characteristic. Our brains cannot do two cognitively demanding things simultaneously.

Let’s think about how we can apply what we’ve seen today to the classroom. The first thing is that it only takes is a small distraction for information that you have just learned to evaporate. If you are getting to grips with a new concept in your lessons and you then think about the piece of gossip you meant to tell your neighbour, your chances of transferring the new concept to your long term memory are dramatically reduced. Distractions are compelling – it’s very easy to be like Dug from Up: 

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

And don’t kid yourself that you can do two things at once; you can’t. Once you’re distracted, the damage is done.

Put simply:

  1. Concentrate on the task at hand
  2. Focus on the learning
  3. Apply and use what you have learned straight away if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

And, by the way, 23 x 8 = 184.

Good luck!

Here is the PowerPoint, though the gifs don’t work in this slideshare version. Click on this link for the full version: Concentration.

Concentration phoster