Saturday, 12 July 2014

100% Concentration

Planning lessons is great. It was one of my favourite tasks of teaching. It usually follows the pattern of me going: oh, I could do this; oh, I could read this with the class; oh, I could get them to; and, oh, wouldn’t it be great if…? I become engrossed in the exploration of thoughts and ideas. Time speeds up as I waste hours making a booklet, a resource or a ‘whizzy’ PowerPoint. Then, the opposite occurs when marking. Time slows down. I am interrupted by everything in the world: my stomach; my interest to learn the current market value of bananas; my desire to see a cute kitten; and a speck of dust which has landed on the desk. In fact, I put everything I can in the way of preventing the job.

My level of concentration varies depending on the task. I am much better with my marking than I once was. In my NQT year, I’d spend days marking one set of book. Now, I plough through it and mark them in half that time, but it is all down to concentration. I have trained myself to concentrate better on the things I don’t enjoy. But, that is sadly what we haven’t done in teaching? We haven’t always taught students to concentrate more. In fact, if I am honest, we have only supported our students’ inability to focus on one thing for any long time.h

We live in a busy world – bear with… just checking my phone. We live in a busy world and there are constant drains on our attention. You are probably nodding off now as you read this, because I haven’t included a picture of something relevant. My lessons, of old, used to feature tonnes of things designed to entertain students. I was made to feel, as a younger teacher, your lessons needed to take the shape and look of a Blue Peter lesson. Here’s a sonnet I made earlier! My only real concern was making sure students were entertained, I mean engaged. Lessons used to be filled to the brim with activities to entertain students. A card sort. A quick quiz. A video. But, this was how I was led to believe that lessons should be. I should be doing ‘fun stuff’ and the students should be entertained.

Frankly, all this way of teaching only supported the fact that students didn’t have to do much in the learning. They just had to respond. Not be engaged. They just had to wave a card at me and I was convinced they had learnt something. They just had to refrain from doodling an obscene image of a book for me to be proud that they were engaged in the learning. As long as their response was positive, I was happy.

There’s been a lot of talk about resilience and grit - and other things that resemble the names of aftershaves. Grit for Men – You’re Tough Enough!   There have been comments like ‘we must make them more resilient’ and similar things that wouldn’t sound out of place in a line from the Borg in ‘Star Trek’. For me, I think concentration is the key thing that underwrites all of this malarkey. In fact, do we consider, plan or factor concentration levels in lessons? I used to have the inbuilt timer of: 5 minutes - Year 7; 10 minutes –Year 8; 15 minutes – Year 9; 20 minutes – Year 10; and 25 minutes Year 11.    

The change in the curriculum suggests that there is a shift in expectation from students. Things are getting tougher and harder. Yet, I think amongst all the talk of change, we might be missing one thing: developing the concentration levels of students. The main difference between a modern novel and a classic text is the amount of concentration needed. The thought and effort needed to follow things in ‘Jane Eyre’ is twice the amount of ‘Of Mice and Men’ (based on a ‘real’ fact).  ‘Of Mice and Men’ is instantly engaging and enjoyable, yet ‘Jane Eyre’ is a grower, as they say. It takes time to enjoy.

Do we need to work harder on developing the concentration levels of the students? Do we need to factor that in our planning? Or, have we manufactured the bitesize generation? They can only read small texts. They can only really write effective short paragraphs. They can only deal with things for 10 or less minutes.

Look at proofreading. Effective proofreading is a product of concentration. You concentrate hard to spot errors. (I apologise if there are any on this blog.) Watching students proofread is hilarious. It suddenly becomes an Olympic sport. A three paged essay is checked within 2 minutes. Amazing.

This week I worked on proofreading with a group of students. To be honest, I made them spend a whole hour proofreading one piece of their work. They did it well, and, I managed to make it engaging.

I told them that they were going to make money. The more mistakes they found, the more money they would make. I told them afterwards how much each mistake cost so that they wouldn’t be tactical. Then, they read the text several times, but each time they focused on a different aspect.

Reading one: The Basics – full stops and capital letters

Reading two: Spellings – homophones and regular words

Reading three: Commas

Reading four: Grammar – missing words or incorrect phrases

Reading five: Apostrophes

In pairs, the scoured the text for mistakes. At this stage they didn’t correct them, simply highlighted the mistake. When they had completed the different readings they had a table to fill out, highlighting all the different mistakes.

Finally, I told them how much each mistake cost.

Reading one: The Basics – full stops and capital letters 2p

Reading two: Spellings – homophones and regular words 2p

Reading three: Commas 5p

Reading four: Grammar – missing words or incorrect phrases 10p  

Reading five: Apostrophes 5p

It worked well for the class and it saved me a lot of effort circling their work for obvious mistakes, but it proved a point: they could do proofreading well if they concentrated on it. Proofreading is all about concentration. To be experts, students need to realise the slow pace that is necessary to build to expertise.  Our students want to be experts without the necessary work. Let’s teach them to concentrate first and then things will follow.

The A grade students in the class are the ones that can concentrate.  The rest want to be like the As, secretly, but they can’t yet because they can’t concentrate enough.

Thanks for reading,


  1. I really agree with all of this (especially about checking the market value of bananas). I used to be just like you - trying to think of things to keep them busy the whole time and not having any activity that lasted longer than ten minutes. As you say, all it does is encourage them to concentrate for less and less time. I love your proofreading ideas.

  2. Great post Chris, thoroughly agree with it all. (Although I would definitely give more for apostrophes, rogue ones really irk me.)

  3. Thank you Fran and Stephen.

  4. I counted 3 clear errors, and 2 or 3 debatable use of words/phrases. However, the meaning was still clear.

  5. I will take that given that we are a week away from the end of term : )

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. I couldn't agree more. I Think concentration is getting harder to achieve because modern life from tv to games are designed for short concentration spans. So it is no surprise that children cannot consentrate.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.