Ben Parr, author of Captivology, identifies three types of attention in the modern world: immediate, short, and long. To capture someone’s attention, you have to see these three parts, as stages into a person’s subconscious. But how does this translate into the classroom?

To gain students attention for the entire school year, you must gain their immediate, short term and long term attention. It’s not enough to just to count down from three and expect them to be attentive for the rest of the year. You need to break it down into these three strategies.

Keeping children’s attention can be very challenging in a classroom environment. Not all children are wired the same and not all our curriculum objectives are very engaging. 90% of the information available to us was created in the past 2 years which is a mind-blowing fact!

As Ben Parr states, the modern world is full of information and so for us teachers, our challenge is to make our information and learning, that we are presenting to our students, more important, more relevant and more engaging than anything else. An impossible task you may think…

According to Ben, there are three levels of attention you can gain from a human: immediate, short and long.

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Whilst Ben puts these into the context of the media and company branding, we can use these stages to grab children’s attention and foster a love of learning which will engage them not only in the short term but for life.

But, how do you gain a child’s immediate or long-term attention and what might this look like day to day on a cold windy morning in an inner city Year Three class?

Immediate Attention

The attention you give to a plate smashing in a restaurant or a YouTube video of a monkey sat on a turtle, is immediate attention. It catches your eye, intrigues you for a second before you return back to your own thoughts. Attempts to gain children’s immediate attention are made all the time. Not just from teachers but by TV adverts, YouTube video suggestions and those one pound gum ball machines at the front of the supermarket.

Immediate attention is probably the one thing that teachers are best at.

Being able to gather children’s attention in three rhythmic claps is an art that only Primary Teachers can appear to master! Immediate attention is not just about gathering students back together it’s the stimulus you use to engage children in various activities.

Using EdTech to Gain Student’s Attention

As teachers, we are constantly competing with the media to engage our children and in a world where social media and YouTube play such a major part of our youngsters’ lives it can feel rather impossible. However, instead of competing with digital devices and the latest and coolest YouTubers, why not harness these to add extra interest to your lessons.

Apps, Ipads and various digital media, can be used as great learning tools, whilst putting children in the driving seat of their learning on a day to day basis can constantly gain children’s immediate attention.

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Questions, investigations and visual or practical stimulus is the key to grabbing your class’ focus. After all, it is the question of ‘What happened over there?’ that makes people turn around when a plate smashes in the restaurant kitchen. You can get a similar reaction from your class, when you suddenly announce a surprise timetables test on a Monday morning.

However, when placing immediate attention into the context of achieving long term goals, this makes it slightly trickier. Why do we need to sort these words into nouns and verbs? How will it benefit me as a learner? These questions are just as valuable to the teacher as they are to the children.

When designing your lessons, it is always worth asking yourself, why do I want the children to complete this activity? What will they learn and what will they develop through this five-minute activity. If the answer is nothing, then it probably isn’t worth doing.

Each and every stepping stone during a lesson needs to have a purpose and be meaningful in the context of what needs to be achieved. If you get that right, you gain short term attention.

Short Term Attention

Flossing, dabbing and the new and exciting triangle dance (if this hasn’t hit your part of the world yet, it will do in coming months) are all examples of how someone somewhere in the deep depths of the internet has gained children’s short-term attention.

The children love it, they want to do it all the time and for us teachers we pull our hair out as to how on earth we can get the children to learn their spellings opposed to flossing their way down the corridor.

As Ben states, short term attention is watching one episode of a TV drama which can be compared to one lesson in your unit of learning. The individual episode needs to be engaging enough to make us want to complete the whole series. Linking to the overarching outcome, we can ask, what skills are going to be developed this lesson that will take us a step closer to our end goal?

Reading texts lets us understand what we need to include in our own persuasive piece of writing. Sentence and grammar work help us develop our writing skills so we can better persuade our reader. Drama and role-play help us verbalise and construct what we want to share with our audience.

By sharing these steps with the children, lessons are given a context and form steps towards a purposeful end. Perhaps it might also be worth throwing in a cliff-hanger, just for good measure.

Attention Signals for High School Students

For older students, the learning journey ahead can also be outlined and then developed by themselves, which gives ownership of learning to the children. Strategies like this also allow children to see the journey that they have, and will, be taking. By letting children know what they will be achieving in the week ahead, they will know where they are going and can focus on completing their task to a high standard.

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By looking at the bigger picture and designing your learning from there, learning becomes meaningful.

When learning is meaningful, learning becomes powerful and relevant. This in turn leads to long-term attention of a subject that can all too easily become dry and objective based if there is no end goal or product. No, your children may not grow up to be best-selling authors or world-class mathematicians, but they will grow up with a motivation to develop and grow.

They will learn and aspire to do and be better. This is something we surely want for every child!

We paid for driving lessons so we could gain our independence and drive to the local gym, and we developed our ICT skills so we could take pictures of our food and share them on social media sites…

For children, the purpose of learning has to be there too. Why do we need to persuade the Head Teacher to give us more break time, if the answer is inevitably going to be no? Too often, children are disengaged with a topic because the learning seems irrelevant.

Long Term Attention

Long term attention refers to a unit of learning. How can we allow children to become immersed and motivated through an entire persuasive writing unit or an entire topic on Romans? Time and time again, I will refer back to one key word: purpose.

Without purpose, learning becomes meaningless. Purpose is one aspect of learning which appears to fit perfectly with the goal of creating interest. Learning appears to be pointless if there is no end goal. After all, why do we as adults learn anything new?

As teachers, we can easily fall into the trap of forcing children through lessons because the Curriculum said so.

In order to get children on board with a unit of learning, we as ‘learning designers’ need to piece together a unit which incorporates the curriculum goals but has strong end goals for the learners. What do we want our children to have achieved by the end of this unit?

Once this question is answered, we can then start to piece together the steps the children need to take and the skills that need to be developed in order to reach that long-term motivational goal. Purpose mixed with a dash of personalisation will go a long way to gaining your students’ long-term attention.

Novelty is also highlighted in the video at the bottom of this article. It is important that our tasks and goals have a feeling of newness about them. The students will pick up when you are repeating something or have pulled something out last minute.

Originality does not always mean thinking of new activities. Novelty can simply refer to the idea of developing new skills, looking at something in a different way or completing something using a new strategy. When tasks have an element of novelty, motivation and attention are enhanced.

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There is a reason why after a few months, the floss and Gangnam Style died a rapid death. They did not gain anyone’s long-term attention. They did not come up with anything new to spark and reignite interest. If you keep your teaching fresh, you get the long term attention of children that flossing never did, but if you repeat activities and don’t give teaching a purpose then you risk your Ancient Greek topic being compared to Gangnam Style and no one wants that…


Ben Cooper
I started my career after graduating from the University of Cumbria – Lancaster Campus where I studied Art and Design with Primary QTS. After graduating, I moved back to my home city of Manchester where I taught in an inner city school across KS2. It was during this time I developed a passion for Teaching and Learning whilst leading PE, inquiry-based learning and Apple device implementation. It was during this time that the website LiteracyWAGOLL.com was created and established. I then moved overseas in Dubai where I worked in a large through school as a class teacher, Head of Teaching and Learning and Head of Upper KS2. I am now Assistant Primary Principal and Head of Teaching and Learning. I am an author and creator of the expanding WAGOLL Teaching blog and vlog on YouTube and continue to develop the LiteracyWAGOLL website with a growing number of resources and example texts. I have also written articles for various Teaching Magazines including TeachPrimary and create my own digital WAGOLL Teaching E-Magazine.