Eliminate potential distractions

Reducing extraneous load in the classroom

Hey 👋

Hope your Thursday is going smoothly and you’ve been mulling on cognitive load and learning. Today’s big idea brings some tactics to the table…

Big idea 🍉

Attention is a finite commodity. When we reduce the number of distractions our students face, we increase the attention they can spend on learning. Let’s dive in:

Last week we opened the box on Cognitive Load Theory. CLT tells us that our working memories can only bear so much load before they drop all the balls. And that this load can arise from either intrinsic sources (the thing to be learned) or extraneous sources (the learning process or distractions).

The more our students' working memories are consumed by extraneous sources of load, the less attention they have available for learning. Which is why one of the lowest hanging fruits of effective teaching is to eliminate distractions before they occur.

“There is no such thing as information overload, only bad design.”

Edward Tufte

However, eliminating distractions is easier said than done. The classroom is an information rich environment—it is packed with things that could easily fill the limited capacity of student attention many times over. AND teachers love to be helpful, which can often lead us to giving students too much information.

For example, early in my teaching career, I would regularly set my students off on a practice task… and then wander around and talk over them. Don't forget to do X. Peta is taking a smart approach. Keep going team.

Narration has its place in teaching, but not during independent practice. Each time I opened my mouth I was distracting my students from the task I had set. And so these days, I hold my tongue on such occasions.

Other ways we can eliminate potential distractions include:

  • Social distractions Contracting with colleagues to minimise lesson interruptions; working with parents to reduce lateness; developing strong behaviour management systems.

  • Environmental distractions Moving clocks, posters, and displays to the back of the classroom; using classroom blinds effectively; arranging chairs and tables to orient student focus.

  • Instructional distractions Stripping clutter from slides; taking the shortest path in activity design; practising our economy of language.

Caveat → of course, freeing up attentional bandwidth is only worthwhile if we use it productively. But that’s a conversation for a different email.

🎓 For more on the mechanics of distractions, check out Irrelevant interruptions and their cost to thinking, by Dan Willingham.

What kinds of distractions occur in your classroom/school? Which of these are within your control? What one thing could you start doing today to make it easier for your your students to focus?


• Attention is a finite commodity. When we reduce distractions, we increase the attention available for learning.

• Eliminating distractions is hard because the classroom is information-rich and teachers can be prone to over-sharing.

• Distractions can arise in social, environmental, and instructional contexts—we should work on reducing each.

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Peps ☘️