Distractional aftermath

The mechanics of attentional shift

Hey ๐Ÿ‘‹

Hope your week is going well. Fancy a quick dip into the attentional mechanics of distractions? Agreed, who doesnโ€™tโ€ฆ

Big idea ๐Ÿ‰

Distractions eat attention, and their appetite is BIG. Some estimates suggest that, on average, schools may be losing 1/3 of learning time to distractions.

How so much?! To answer that question, we need to look at the mechanics of distractions. Let's explore an example.

Say a teacher pops into your lesson to talk to one of your students. They come in discreetly, pass on the message quietly, and depart immediately. The whole thing lasts 15 seconds. A trivial amount of time.

When they arrive, your students are practising adding fractions. They are concentrating hard because this stuff is new and challenging and there are multiple things they need to keep in mind to be successful.

Butโ€ฆ humans are curious. We are built to pay attention to changes in our environment. If someone pops into your classroom, it's hard for your students to ignore it, no matter how discreet.

In this moment, several of your students shift their attention. They drop their train of thought about fractions. And now theyโ€™re more prone to shifting their attention elsewhere, to a peer, to thoughts of lunch, or out the window.

When you finally corral them back to the fractions, and they get back to where they were in their thinking, many more seconds, perhaps even minutes may have passed.

(Think about our own behaviour... a simple 'ding' from our phone takes less than a second, but we can lose hours of our life in the aftermath)

In short, distractions leave a wake. They have an aftermath which means that the learning time they consume can be significantly more than the duration of the distraction itself.

Keeping our lessons challenging and our students motivated can reduce this aftermath. But it canโ€™t eliminate it totally. We must also work to systematically reduce distractions.

Important โ†’ freeing up attentional bandwidth is only worthwhile if we use it productively.

๐ŸŽ“ For more, check out this article on the mechanics of distractions by Dan Willingham.


  • Distractions can incur a surprisingly large cost to learning.

  • This is partly due to the aftermath that distractions cause to our attention.

  • Challenge and motivation can partly mitigate this effect.

Support the evidence & get more stuff โ†’ Learn about Snacks PRO

Have a super weekend when you get there.

Peps ๐Ÿ‘Š