How to Engage Students with Shorter Attention Spans
In today’s vast and varying world of education, there are a few topics in which teachers in any school or district will find common ground. As you think about what items may be on this list – teacher pay, school safety, the use of technology – I am willing to bet that “student attention and engagement” would be near the top of that list. One might argue that these are, in fact, two separate topics nuanced enough to necessitate dedicated time and attention to each. I think this is, ultimately, a flawed approach. Instead, topics of engagement and attention are inextricably intertwined and should be addressed in isolation.
Can we all agree that presently, there is so much competition for students’ attention both during and beyond the school day? It is a striking reality, and realities shouldn’t be ignored. I recall being told over a decade ago that a student’s attention to a specific task is limited to 8-12 minutes at a time. This range has been contextualized and adjusted both up and down over time. Regardless, I always questioned this assertion as I witnessed middle and high school relatives playing sports and video games for hours. Luckily, I came across the work of Dr. John Almarode from James Madison University.
As an expert in student engagement and attention, his work has greatly influenced my understanding. Summarized below are eight “look-for” he identified regarding student engagement.
- Does the activity, strategy, task, or idea allow for the student to personalize his or her response? Can they bring their life experiences into the activity and make it their own?
- Are there clear and modeled expectations?
- Is there a sense of audience above and beyond the teacher and the test? Does the activity have value to someone else?
- Is there social interaction? Do students have an opportunity to talk about the learning and interact?
- Is there a culture of emotional safety? Are mistakes valued because they are an opportunity to learn?
- Do students have opportunities to choose within the activity?
- Is it an authentic activity? This doesn’t mean it always must connect directly to the student’s world, but it should connect to reality.
- Is the task new and novel? If kids are bored, it’s hard to see engagement.
When you work with schools, it is essential that you remain current on education research, policy, and practice. Not doing so can place you in an unenviable position that could be, on the low end, hard to backtrack out of. In a more severe case, touting a position or practice that is flawed runs the risk of discrediting you and your organization. For example, every time a vendor mentions the value of learning styles or how their product or services support learning styles, both of my eyebrows raise. The reason for this reaction is that “learning styles” have been discredited as an educational belief or practice for some time now. As you may suspect, I then share this gaff with our colleagues and beyond with the concerning question, “What else are they getting wrong that I wouldn’t be able to justify with our community?”
To return to the “student attention and engagement” topic we began with, I suggest doing some work upfront to understand the vision and work the school or district has engaged in regarding these topics. This will help get you “speaking their language” and show a level of personalization that, like the topic at hand, is so important. Then, bolster your understanding with some salient articles, podcasts, and research studies that you can reference with confidence and share with your contacts. These two steps will set you apart from your competition.
Written by: Craig Perrier
Educational Thought Leader and Practitioner
Craig is the High School Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, VA. He also is an online adjunct professor of education for Framingham State University and the teacher certification program, Educate VA. Previously, he taught at American Schools in Brazil for six years and for six years in public schools in Massachusetts.
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