How Do You Teach Students to Focus?

As a student, I had difficulty staying focused in class.  Although I didn’t get in trouble for not focusing because I could fake it real well, I wonder how much learning I actually did in high school.  While the teachers were talking, I was generally drawing, doodling, doing homework, or anything else but paying attention.  In my four years of high school, I got really could at looking up and writing or drawing at the same time.  It’s quite an amazing talent.  Perhaps I should take my show on the road.  See, even writing this blog I have trouble staying on track.  Okay, where was I?  Oh yes, so yeah, I was a very unfocused student.  While I tried, at times, to pay attention, I found it difficult to maintain that focus.  Maybe it was because I wasn’t interested in the topic or maybe it was because I didn’t see the relevance in what the teacher was saying.  Looking back, I wish my teachers had taught me how to stay focused.  How might that have looked?  Would it have been like Pavlov’s great dog experiments?  Would I receive a shock every time I stopped looking at the teacher or a treat everytime I looked at the teacher for 10 second intervals?  That might actually have worked, but I wonder how human rights activists would have reacted.  Maybe there’s another way.

Today during STEM class, our school’s librarian talked to our boys about a very cool research tool that we have access to on our network.  She showed the boys how to use it and access it.  She even had them create accounts so that they could save their research.  Very cool stuff.  I prefaced her talk by explaining the purpose of it.  “You will need to research Brook Trout and ecosystems for class but you will also need to research many other topics in all of your other classes.  This tool will be very useful to you.”  I also reminded the students that we will be monitoring their effort and focus during the lesson as they will be graded on how focused they are during the lesson.   Going into the librarian’s talk, the students knew the expectations and purpose.  The relevance was clear and tangible for them.  While the content of the talk might not have been as engaging as a video game, it was important to their success as a student.  However, throughout her lesson, many students were disengaged, unfocused, and distracting.  Why is that?  If they knew what was expected of them, why did they do the opposite?  Did they not care?  Were they thinking about something else?  Had the librarian set the behavior expectations at the start of her lesson, would things have been different?  Rarely do we have such focus issues in the classroom.  What happened today?  Why were the students so unfocused?

Following the lesson, I spoke to the students about their behavior and how I was disappointed by their actions.  The remainder of the period was much better as the students diligently worked on their Brook Trout Project.  So, if the students know how to focus in some situations, why not others?  How can we teach our students to be focused and on-task all the time?  Well, not all the time, of course.  Why is it that when one of the sixth grade teachers is teaching, the students are focused and engaged and when someone else is running the show, chaos ensues?  How can we teach our students to be engaged and focused in every academic situation no matter who the teacher is?  Is it about the topic or engagement with it?  Is it about the teacher?  Is it about building a routine or setting expectations?  Is it about follow-through?  What if we talk to the students about it and see what they say?  Might they have some ideas or thoughts on the topic?  Maybe there is an underlying reason for the lack of focus?  Short of penalizing them when they are unfocused, I wonder if there are other ways to teach students to focus in all academic situations.


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