Orchestrating attention

Precision teaching and learning

Hey 👋

HNY. We’re kicking off the new year with a series on 'attention’. Heads up…

Big idea 🍉

What we attend to is what we learn. Because what we attend to is what we end up thinking about, and what we think about is what we end up knowing about.

Attention is the primary currency of the classroom, the gatekeeper of learning. As such, it should be a core consideration in any act of teaching. The two-fold challenge of attention in school is that:

  1. Our attentional bandwidth is limited—we can only ever attend to a very few number of things at any one time. Multi-tasking is a myth (it’s really just task switching: an inefficient way to learn).

  2. Our attentional system is not optimised for school—instead, over many millennia, it has evolved to prioritise those things which helped our ancestors us survive and succeed, and to aggressively filter out almost everything else.

Consider, for example, the humble £10 (or $10) note. We've all seen it thousands of times, but if we tried to draw it, we’d realise quickly that we really haven't attended to it much all over the years. Just because we’re exposed to ideas and information doesn't mean we encode them.

This presents teachers with a challenge. The very premise of school is to help young people learn stuff they wouldn't otherwise learn if left to their own devices. As such, we cannot treat the curriculum like a natural magnet for student attention. Instead, we must actively orchestrate things. We must direct and manage student attention in their best interests.

And when we get this right, not only do we help our students to learn more, but we also build their sense of belonging (through shared action) and make the classroom more equitable (through greater equality of focus). Orchestrating attention is a teaching power move. How can we do it well?

Essentially, it comes down to:

  1. Thinking carefully about what we want our students to be paying attention to at any given point during our lessons, and…

  2. Actively directing and managing the attention of as many students as possible for as much of the time as possible.

Nuance → This doesn’t necessarily mean getting students to think hard about one thing for sustained periods of time… sometimes optimal attention entails focussing elsewhere for a while, or even taking an intentional attention break.

In coming Snacks, we'll look at some of this in more detail, but for now, let's just let the main message sink fully in:

Attention is the currency of the classroom, the gatekeeper of learning—because what our students attend to is ultimately what they learn.


  • What our students attend to is what they learn.

  • However, student attentional mechanics are not optimised for school.

  • We (teachers) must think carefully about what we want our students to be paying attention to at any given point and take steps to actively orchestrate this.

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Now, go smash 2024.

Peps 👊

*HT to the legendary Mike Hobbiss (half-teacher, half cognitive neuroscientist, half robot) for bringing this paper to my attention.

PS. The savvy of you will also notice a few improvements to the structure of these emails. As ever, do let me know what you think.

PPS. The new year is a great time to bring folks aboard the evidence informed bus—click below to share Snacks with colleagues ⤵️