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.