Updated: Feb 19
I have been thinking about doing a blog about concentration for some time. For me, as a teacher, it is always a hot topic because lack of concentration by some children in class is the bane of my life. Ask most teachers and they would probably say the same. We spend hours and hours planning lessons that are interesting, stimulating and engaging and then spend much of our time telling children who are not interested, stimulated and engaged that if they don’t soon become interested, stimulated and engaged, they will be in a lot of trouble. As a result of these interruptions to flow, those interesting, stimulating and engaging lessons end up not being as interesting, stimulating and engaging as you had hoped.
So, is it worth all that effort trying to get them to concentrate? Absolutely! And so rewarding. If you haven’t tried telling children off regularly, do it. It’s immensely cathartic.
One behaviour management technique to save a teacher’s voice and, in theory, have an impact on children who are not listening is to pause the teaching, say nothing and just wait. Many a time I have stopped giving my input to deal with an errant child and just stood there, arms folded, lips closed with a patient look painted on my face which says, ‘I can stand here all day. I will just wait until you make the right choice and concentrate.’
You have spotted the flaw in this brilliant plan, haven’t you? The impatient inside of my face certainly has. It is frantically signalling to the patient outside of my face that it definitely does not have all day to stand there with a face saying that it can stand there all day. Both sides of the face are already running late, leaving even less time in the next lesson to stand and wait until the (same) child makes the right choice and concentrates.
Also my impatient face will be pointing out to my patient face that even if there was a burning flare stuck up their joint owner’s backside and he was singing the Hallelujah Chorus, it still would not get the attention of the offending child and make them concentrate because... guess what?... they won't notice you because they’re not bloody concentrating!
Teachers generally don’t worry about 40% of the class – they will always concentrate, whatever happens. There is another 40% or so who will concentrate, providing you keep the lesson interesting, engaging etc. There is a persuasive argument here to say that teachers should ignore the ones who are not concentrating and concentrate on the ones who are concentrating. Although the percentages and ignoring approach might seem attractive, it can’t be done.
Because it is impossible for most teachers to concentrate on delivering a lesson if there are children who are not concentrating. Whether they are chatting, tapping, drawing on something they shouldn’t be drawing on, playing sword fights with rulers, sharpening their pencils to within an inch of their lives (literally to within an inch), leaning back on chairs, unpacking and repacking their MASSIVE pencil cases (we use the Ryanair luggage size racks at the school I work in – if the pencil cases don’t fit in them, the children have to pay an excess to put them in the boiler room), staring into space, staring at you (that is always highly suspicious), reading a book (give me a break – I know they’re ‘learning’ but it’s maths so they should be doing some sums), or checking the stock market on their phones, all of this is highly distracting to a teacher.
Teachers are trained to zone in on the slightest sign of lack of concentration and conditioned to take action. Maybe we should be trained to not zone in on it.
There is a flip-side. I love that look on children’s faces when they concentrate on doing an activity. Head still, totally absorbed. Tongue slightly out and to the side. Eyes wide. Totally quiet. It is a beautiful sight to behold when it happens in the classroom.
I remember one time when I was teaching sewing to a class of 9 and 10 year olds. We were making tableaus of scenes from myths that they had researched. It wasn’t conducive to concentrating with so many children getting frustrated trying to thread needles, tie knots and being forced to do 30 or so stitches along a border when surely ‘one big one would do’. But there was one girl who was totally engrossed in her task for an hour or so, looking exactly like the description in the last paragraph. I checked on her every now and then. The stitches were lovely; perfectly in line, neat, a good size and the materials she had cut were beautifully shaped and realistic. She got through so much and was so proud of her work.
Until she stood up at the end of the lesson to tidy up... and all of her work went with her. She had stitched the whole lot to her cardigan – several times. It all had to be unpicked.
It is not just children who are prone to lapses of concentration. It happens all the time with adults too. In sport, on T.V., in business, crossing the road. Poor driving is the obvious example of where some do not concentrate but there are many other ‘offences’ which all of us commit. And before you say that it does not apply to you, remember the children referred to above. Poor concentration, by definition, suggests a certain state of non-awareness. You don’t always know when you’re not concentrating.
Meditation is a good way to build up concentration skills. When I first started meditating I had imagined it would be a highly relaxing activity. It can be, when you know what you’re doing. I’m still at the learning stage which involves a lot of concentration. The idea behind meditation is that you clear your mind, allow space in it to just be present. Concentrating on the breath is the usual place to start before, maybe, moving to a visualisation activity or similar.
There is a point towards the end in the meditation course that I do where the speaker, to lead you back to your real world after about 10 minutes, says something like: ‘And now let your mind be free to do whatever it wants, think whatever it wants.’ It is at that point that I realise, yet again, that my mind has not been concentrating and instead been doing and thinking precisely whatever it wants for the last 10 minutes. Rather than an opportunity to just ‘be’, it has thought, ‘Great – now I can have a good think about all those things that have been worrying me.’ The speaker’s words will usually kick start me into concentrating again and doing what I should be doing. I’m back on task, 30 seconds later, just as the speaker finishes the meditation by saying, ‘... and now, slowly, open your eyes.’
To be fair, there are regular reminders to ‘concentrate on the breath’ if your mind does wander. And on at least one occasion I have heard him say, ‘I can stand here all day. I will wait here patiently until you make the right choice and concentrate.’
Like every single British person, I am not one to make sweeping statements, but I have to say that men concentrate much better than women. My wife regularly says she tells me things about social arrangements, what the kids have been up to, finances etc. It's not true. I know full well she has told me nothing about any of those things since the beginning of the season.
Here is an example of the powers of concentration that men have.
Before our first child was born my wife and I went to National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes. There were 3 other couples there who, 26 years later, we still meet up with and with whom we remain good friends. At one of the classes, Sarah, the tutor, was taking us through the importance of doing exercises to maintain posture and aid recovery after the baby is born. To this end, all 8 of us, men included, were invited to locate our pelvic floors, a set of muscles in the nether region. As Sarah counted, we had to concentrate hard to contract and relax the muscles in time to her voice.
A few years later, all 4 men admitted that, not knowing in which region Nether actually was, not one of us had been able to visit and carry out manoeuvres. But despite this technical issue, we all maintained a high level of concentration throughout Sarah’s counting. Proof? Our eyebrows were going up and down the entire time.
So, concentration has been the theme of this blog. If you have got to the end and taken it all in – well done, full marks for concentrating.
If these are the first words you have noticed, I must remind you that I can stand here all day...
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the teaching profession as a whole.
Disclaimer to the Disclaimer: The previous disclaimer may or may not be true.