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4 Questions Every Teacher Should Ask About Student Attention

Ignacio Lopez, Ed.D.


Getting Students to Pay AttentionThe science of attention teaches us that we tend to pay attention to what we have been taught to value and that we tend to be astonishingly blind to change until something disrupts our pattern and makes us see what has been invisible before (Davidson, 2011). 


How might this statement apply to the life of a classroom teacher working with several students?


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What questions might a teacher be able to derive from this statement about his or her students?


In my work with several schools across the country teachers argue that technology is the culprit of inattentiveness in their classrooms. One teacher said, “Kids today are so wired and plugged in that all they’re used to… focusing on what they’re friends are doing online…or they’re playing games online… it’s messing up how they learn in my classroom!”


Is technology really “messing up” how students learn today in our classrooms? What of “technology usage” (internet, social networking, video gaming) might teachers be able to learn and apply in their classrooms? In this quick piece I’ve identified four questions teachers need to ask themselves about student “paying attention” in their classrooms to help teachers understand strategies that may help with attention and distractions in the classroom.


Question 1: Who is teaching my students to pay-attention?

The first question I often ask teachers who are concerned with their “inattentive students” is: how have they [the students] learned to properly pay attention?


Who’s teaching them [our students] how to pay attention? Teachers are often telling their students to “pay attention,” but what are we really paying attention to? The truth is our students are paying attention to something, but it’s often not what we want (i.e. a cell phone, a boy in the class, a girl in the class, the worries at home, the snow falling outside the window, etc…)


In her book about the science of attention titled Now You See It, Cathy Davidson introduces the idea that when students are paying attention to something, they are not paying attention to something else (Davidson, 2011). This thinking is often referred to as “attention blindness” and the truth is we all have it. I argue our students will have more attention blindness if they’re not properly taught how to “pay attention” in today’s information-overloaded-world.


My point here is that teachers should be cognizant that learning to pay attention can and should be deliberately incorporated in our lessons. With practice and the right methods, we can learn to see the way in which attention limits our perspectives.


Question 2: How are my students really working with each other?

I’ve been in many classrooms where teachers have assigned students group work. When I’ve asked the students what they were learning, the they sometimes respond by saying: “I’m not learning nothing cause she’s [another student] doing all the work.”


In groups, some students “work” well with others and some students sit back and coast. The reality of group work, the way students truly collaborate, relates to the idea of attention and attention-blindness because of this disconnect. When our students are working on a project together, they could be “missing” ideas or thoughts because they are caught up  in getting the work done. We need to ask ourselves how students can learn to engage in collaborative work and ask each other to review work and look for things they might have missed?


In most grouping instances, teachers will assign students a role. With today's technology, most students find it easy to be autonomous learners. In a sense, they identify their own roles when they’re online or playing video games. Instead of assigning a student’s role, allow them to discuss amongst themselves what their roles should be before they begin the project or work.  


Creating a community of learners is important, for our classrooms and for our students' lives. The question here is: how can teachers help students realize that they don’t know it all (because they can’t see it all), but  they can come close with each other's help.


As Davidson puts it, “We can no longer be living in an 'us versus them' world because our fate and theirs (whoever “we” and “they” are) depend on each other" (pp.7).


Would you like Dr. Lopez to come to your school for a student motivation staff training? Contact the K-12 Teachers Alliance for more information.


Question 3: Do my students lack work-ethic?

I find it sad that across our country, teachers in many classrooms are seeing similar lethargic student attitudes about grades and success. Some students today are demanding better grades just because they “showed up to class everyday!” I want to give students the benefit of the doubt; however, the concerns of many teachers and employers today are regarding entitlement and work-ethic issues..


We could argue that several reasons for such a phenomena exists (parenting, social economic issues, technology, etc…). Regardless of cause, a student’s misunderstanding of paying attention, impatience, and sense of entitlement can be a deadly combination for the future of our students (and our country). My concern is how we as teachers can begin addressing these patterns now.


What Teachers Are Doing Right

  • I have found several teachers who realize the need to create “with-purpose” plan lessons and activities that teach students to be patient (e.g. Socratic methods, etc…).
  • I do work with teachers who are “firm, but fair” in their work and grading policies.
  • They use student academic growth evidence (measures of academic progress/map data, or other student achievement data) to challenge students to “see” (visually, in the form of academic growth charts) that they can grow academically.

I believe these methods, and others that embrace the need to show and walk students toward an epiphany of their own learning, promote a positive student work ethic.


Overcoming Student Frustration

Student frustration may also be playing a role in attention-blindness and work ethic issues, If our students are frustrated with what is happening in the classroom (and how it is happening), they are not able to manage their feelings or emotions. It may be that we [the teachers] continue to give our students activities and problems connected to the 21st century multifaceted way, but we are asking them to act with the same individualistic, product-oriented, task-specific rules of the 20th century (Davidson, 2011).


Other questions that I have for teachers then include:

  • What does work-ethic mean to our students?
  • How have we defined work ethic and attention with our students?
  • And, how can we as teachers help “see” what their [the students] action should be?

Question 4: How do I get my students to focus on what they do best without missing new opportunities to do better?

The key literacy skill of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Collaboration plays a key role in developing this skill. Teachers and schools need to develop a framework or strategy for working in tandem.


One of the most successful instructional outcomes students can have is the ability to learn how to have a partner or group accompany them on assigned tasks. The key message here is “learning how to have a partner” not just having a partner or group do the work for you, but learning how to use a partner to help you see and learning what you miss. Students must learn how to talk through the situation in advance and delegate how each of them watches for certain things or keeps an eye on certain people and items.


How do you instruct your students on paying attention and working together? Share in the comments section!


Book Dr. Lopez for an in-service student motivation staff training.

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