The cost of distraction

Increasing time for learning

Hey 👋

Happy solstice. Today we’re spinning into a new (throwback) series on distractions… STAY FOCUSSED reader.

Big idea 🍉

We (and our students) can only pay attention to and think about a very few number of things at once. Managing this precious attention is important because what our students attend to is what they end up learning about.

We want them attending to the substance of our teaching, the content of our curriculum... everything else is a distraction. The problem is that the classroom is a potentially distraction-rich environment, unless we take deliberate steps to stem it. Distractions can take various forms:

  • Social → Students coming in late, staff popping into lessons, disruptive behaviour.

  • Environmental → Clocks at the front of classrooms, stuff going on outside the window, tech notifications.

  • Instructional → Redundant information on slides, overly complex activities, waffly explanations.

Whatevs Peps, this is all fairly obvious. Okay FINE… but I’m not convinced we’ve got our intuition right on the size of the effect.

One study of US schools found that interruptions consume about 15% of learning time (27 days per year). This doesn't take poor behaviour into account... which a recent analysis by the DfE found consumes 23% of learning time (42 days per year). And this is before we even begin to factor in instructional distractions.

Overall, interruptions and poor behaviour consume, on average, over 1/3 of lesson time.

Which means that if we eliminated distractions completely, we could increase learning by over 50% 😱

Now, what can we do about all this? Well, the first step is to take distractions seriously (imagine someone came to you and said they could increase learning in your school by 50%...). After that, it's just a case of identifying what distractions look like in your context, and then working through them systematically.

Working with parents to reduce student lateness, contracting with colleagues around interruptions, developing strong behaviour systems, moving clocks to the back of classrooms, using classroom blinds effectively, eliminating smartphones, stripping clutter from slides, practising economy of language, taking the shortest path, and so on.

Note → Leaders tend to systematically underestimate the cost of distraction even more.

🎓 For more, check out this study on the cost of interruptions.


  • The classroom is a distraction-rich environment, the costs of which are often more than we think.

  • Eliminating all distractions could improve learning by over 50%.

  • Leaders tend to underestimate this effect even more.

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Enjoy that daylight (or lack of it).

Peps 👊

PS. I’m super proud of how Steplab is helping schools succeed… if you’re interested in how it might benefit you, just head over to and book in a free demo (with our truly delightful team) ⤵️