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.