Educational implications of attention and distraction in teenagers

This is the third in a series of interviews with researchers in Educational Neuroscience, to showcase current work that aims to bridge the gap between science and the classroom.
Educational implications of attention and distraction in teenagers

This time we have Mike Hobbiss, a PhD student from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL.

Hi Mike, please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you’re researching at the moment.

Hi Annie. I’m a 2nd Year PhD student at UCL, studying attention and distraction in teenagers, particularly in school settings. Before starting my PhD I was a secondary school teacher for eight years, working at schools both in England and internationally. I have two current research strands. The first is to use experiments to investigate differences between distractibility in adolescents and other age groups. ‘Are adolescents more distractible?’ ‘Are some things more distracting for certain age groups than others?’ That sort of thing. The second strand is to design questionnaires which can help us to predict people’s distractibility in real life. This will give schools an easy tool to help predict which students may have problems with attention control.

Why is the period of adolescence particularly interesting in terms of cognitive control?

Adolescence is a fascinating period. Some parts of the brain are pretty much fully developed and are operating at full speed, whilst others are a lot slower to mature. Areas in charge of ‘cognitive control’ are among the last to develop, whereas, for example areas that process emotions and rewards develop earlier. This creates a mismatch; where the control systems sometimes can’t deal with all the information that is being sent their way… and this can lead to bad decisions being made.

Added to this is the fact that adolescents have far greater freedom than younger children. It’s not that adolescents make worse decisions than children for example (they don’t), but then we don’t let children drive cars or stay out alone, so the effects of their bad decisions are usually minimised.

This combination of greater social freedom and still developing cognitive control is what can lead to harmful consequences. We’re all familiar with the statistic that teenagers and young adults come top of the ‘accidental death’ charts, but I’m focusing on other consequences which don’t tend to get as much attention, such as the effect that cognitive control can have on educational success.

What got you interested in researching this topic?

Well firstly, I’d had eight years of first-hand experience of adolescent inattention! I saw the difference that cognitive control could make to a student’s educational outcomes. Secondly, I was lucky at my last school to be given a job that required me to lead a project based on educational research. I had long been frustrated by ideas in teaching that I knew weren’t practical (or even possible) given what we know about how the brain works. I was surprised to find that this lack of coherence between different levels seemed to happen in the research as well. Educational research didn’t seem to be properly based on cognitive psychology, which in turn wasn’t always based properly on underlying neuroscientific evidence.

An example from my own research focus is that there is 30 years of research in cognitive neuroscience into how we control our attention, and it has told us a huge amount, but there has been very little work trying to apply these findings into the real world to see if they actually work in different real-life settings. That’s what I’m trying to do in schools; take well validated and replicable tests of attention and see what they can tell us about educational performance in adolescence.

One of the reasons that the aims of the field of Educational Neuroscience really resonate with me is that their specific stated aim is to provide bridges like this, between different research areas and environments, so that we can move from the neuroscience lab, through psychology, to the classroom much more efficiently than we have done previously.

What are the potential implications of your research for teachers and students?

I think that attention problems are often overlooked in schools unless they are serious enough to be diagnosed as a clinical problem (such as ADHD). In truth, the ability to control our attention lies on a spectrum, and your position on the spectrum plays a crucial role in all students’ academic success, not just those at the very bottom. A child might have a very high IQ but poorer attentional control, and so never get the chance to maximise their intellectual talents. There is evidence, for example, that lots of variables traditionally associated with educational achievement - such as IQ, delinquency, social problems in school, anxiety and others - may actually be mediated by attention problems.

I believe one clear implication of the research is that attentional control and distractibility should be measured in the same way as schools measure IQ, for example when students arrive at secondary school in Year 7. To the best of my knowledge, however, no schools are doing this at the moment.

Is there anything that teachers, parents, or students can use from your field right now in their teaching and learning?

The neuroscience of attention can tell us a lot about how to minimise distraction in experimental settings, though as I mentioned we are lacking evidence on how this translates into real world behaviour at the moment. People often want really flashy, new solutions from research, but a lot of the evidence-based suggestions are really quite mundane and common-sense! For students, distraction is minimised when the number of potentially distracting things in the environment is minimised. This means studying in a quiet space, with your phone off (or well out of the way) and listening to music without lyrics. Getting enough sleep and exercise are also very important for improving cognitive control.

For teachers, distraction increases when the cognitive load of the information being presented is too high, so finding ways to properly manage this is very important, for example by breaking material and instructions down into stages or chunks, or by presenting appropriate information pictorially rather than verbally.

One potentially major change in education for both students and teachers is the increased role of technology in education. Whilst the scare stories about screens destroying children’s attention spans are not supported by research, there is increasingly strong evidence that multitasking with media (so using more than one media source concurrently) is associated with poorer educational outcomes. Multitasking seems to train people to ‘split’ their attention between more than one source, so that they find it increasingly difficult to focus on just one thing. I’m not against the use of technology in education per se, but I do think it is clear that encouraging children to use appliances such as iPads in lessons creates the opportunity for multitasking and split attention, which in turn makes distraction from the main source of information all the more likely. I would caution both teachers and students to carefully evaluate whether they really do need to use technology for any given task, and if so, to consider how they can use it efficiently without being drawn into multitasking and distraction.

What direction do you think future work in this area might take – both for you and for others researching Educational Neuroscience?

I would love to see schools taking the idea of a spectrum of attentional control seriously, and trying to measure and accommodate that into their teaching methods. It would be great if the work that I am doing at the moment resulted in the creation of a measurement tool that helped schools to do this. If I’m really dreaming then this would be just one step of a larger process whereby research and practice in education became much more coherently linked!

Beyond this there will need to be a lot of work investigating exactly how to successfully apply research findings to the unique context of each school. Researchers can’t (or at least shouldn’t) suggest that their data illustrates the ‘right way’ for schools to do something. They offer pointers of the right sorts of things to be doing, and teachers are then the people with the expertise to decide and test out what exact combination of these suggestions will be most effective for their situation. Research should be the start of the conversation in schools, rather than the end of it. At the moment though, it’s often not part of the conversational all, and that’s what I’d like to see change most of all.

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Go to the profile of Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne
almost 7 years ago
For lots of really interesting posts about bridging science and education from Mike, go to his personal blog here: