Tristram Hunt is right about children lacking the ability to concentrate - what happened to quiet time?

You can teach attentiveness, but not by having a slot in the timetable


If you can’t concentrate you can’t learn. The ability to apply yourself undistracted and single-mindedly to a task or train of thought is fundamental to achieving almost anything. And that usually means quiet.

And yet we live in a world where the wherewithal to concentrate seems to be valued less and less. You’re not allowed even to focus on deciding whether to buy a large or small bag of frozen peas in a supermarket without being interrupted by announcements or musak. Or both.

Most libraries, if they’re still open, are rackety places these days. You can no longer hear yourself think on public transport and almost everybody, everywhere, fiddles with often noisy phones and other electronic devices every few minutes. Social media has a lot to answer for.

Quiet classrooms, moreover, in which teachers talk and pupils listen attentively tend to be rather frowned upon in a culture which values ‘interactivity’ – aka flitting about like a manic butterfly from one thing to another – is valued above all else.

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, who has said this week that he wants attentiveness taught in schools, is right to be worried about the effects of all this on the learning and education of children and young people.

But the last thing schools need is another raft of ‘soft skills’ formally foisted upon them as part of the curriculum. Of course you can teach attentiveness but you don’t do it by having a slot in the timetable labelled, say, ‘character development, resilience and concentration’ which is what Hunt seems to be advocating.

Good schools, sensible teachers – and of course parents - impart these things integrally and develop them in children through everything they do.

Last week I had a child, aged 2½, in the house for 48 hours. I was impressed by her unusual ability to sit engrossed and unaided in, for example, a jigsaw for up to quarter of an hour. Her mother tells me that nursery staff report she is the only child in their care who can concentrate in this way. Why? Probably because she has never been allowed to play with a smartphone or tablet and her parents have encouraged her since birth to look carefully at books and other simple things for as long as her growing concentration span lasts.

So what can schools do to promote attentiveness across the board? The Elkin package would include banning phones from the classroom and enforcing it strictly (as Michael Gove intimated last week that the government would support with approved sanctions.)  I would also introduce compulsory, daily silent reading sessions in which everyone on the premises reads a book of his or her choice. And that includes staff because young people need to see adults absorbed in books. You could easily set aside half an hour each morning for this. There are few better ways of developing concentration.

And every lesson – regardless of the subject - should include some quiet time in which everyone thinks, reflects, writes or whatever.  Noise, chatter and interruptions get in the way of attentive learning. Yes, I know it shouldn’t need spelling out but that’s the pass we’ve come to.

There is also plenty of evidence that sugary drinks and other junk foods affect children’s attentiveness by triggering hyperactivity. So we need to do a lot more, even more than we’re beginning to do, to keep children away from these foods. Personally I’d insist, for example, on children staying at school all day, eating a carefully controlled school meal and being forbidden to bring any sort of food or drink into school. I’m often accused of tyranny but I can live with it.

Schools should hum with purposeful, endemic, concentrated learning. They shouldn’t resemble mainline railway stations in the rush hour and I’ve visited too many Euston-style schools in which concentration is clearly impossible and little valued. Real learning is peaceful. And it gives learners space to concentrate.

Read more:
Exclusive: Children ‘need lessons in how to concentrate’ because of impact of social media

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page


Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam