Internal School Avoidance- how pupils avoid paying attention

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We’ve all heard about the new focus on internal truancy. First there was external truancy where pupils skipped schools in unauthorised absences. Then we noticed they were dawdling between lessons, going to the toilets a lot – internal truancy, so we’ve cracked down on that and had numerous debates about locking toilets. This blog isn’t about those issues. This blog is about an avoidance of paying attention – for whatever reason.

Barriers to school attendance (school refusal is not the preferred term) is a complex area. Many schools have a designated teacher who liaises with parents when their child meets barriers with attending school. Often, a child has to go through a series of escalating sanctions before they access support. One of the most common areas for this is Emotionally Based School Avoidance (EBSA). It’s far more common than you might think and Covid has amplified the numbers (7.5% of possible sessions were recorded as absence in Autumn term 2022/23, an increase from 6.9% in Autumn 2021/22 according to the DFE). Each child is unique in their reasons, but a good example is that they suffer extreme fight or flight anxiety about an aspect of school which leads to a reduction in their school attendance because there is a natural reluctance for anyone to want to be in a state of fight or flight for too long or every day. This blog is not about those children.

This blog is about the child that can, but avoids, offering the attentional control required to make learning happen effectively. That avoidance can be space physical (a pre-school child might not want to move from one zone to the carpet zone), it can be subtle physical avoidance (a child might make getting ready to work take so long that the “Do Now” activity time has finished before they started) or it can be mental avoidance (they sit quietly, look at the teacher, track, nod, but make no effort to focus on the actual learning). One of these three things happen in pretty much every lesson I’ve ever observed. It’s incredibly common. However, I want to focus on attentional control avoidance because this countermands everything we are doing as teachers.

Using Baddeley’s model of working memory, the central executive brings together the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop to form memories. However, this happens at a variety of levels. Imagine I am walking down the street thinking to myself. I don’t pay that much attention to the environment around me or the familiar route I am taking. However, I then get to a point where the road is closed blocking my normal route. I then need to find an alternative route in order to continue, it is the central executive that enables me to do this as it ‘switches’ attentional control

In the classroom, a pupil uses attentional control to learn. They suppress their other thoughts and instead focus wholly on the thing being taught. Well, that’s the idea. Unless they don’t. And we’ve all been there. Sitting up, listening, tracking the speaker, nodding and wholly zoned out. We are as guilty as any other when it comes to not offering attentional control from time to time.

There are a variety of reasons pupils do this. Sometimes they are quite open about why they are doing it. ‘I’m tired.’, ‘It’s boring’, ‘I already know this’, ‘It’s too hard’ and ‘It’s too hot’ are all things pupils say to us. Sometimes they are discreet about it. They are are slow to get ready, slow to write, only answer questions in simple terms, make little effort in their spoken or written work. They are not paying attentional control. They can do it habitually in every lesson, or only in some lessons and indeed sometimes only for one teacher. There is a ceiling to how much behaviourist approaches to learning can improve this situation. But an issue it is. Because every educator you know will say they see this lack of attentional control on a regular basis from pre-school to post grad. And I want to personally honest here. I’ve been in meetings and talks where I am sitting up, listening, tracking the speaker, nodding and I’m actually away with the fairies. Sometimes my thoughts just go off on tangents. Sometimes I have other things on my mind. I’ve written before about anxiety and the way this affects our working memory and capacity to provide attentional control. If it affects us as adults it most certainly affects children. I have to be clear. I’m not focused on children who are trying hard to provide attentional control despite challenges. Those who have anxiety or other needs which are impairing their attentional control are not the subject of this blog. It is the many who could, but don’t. They waste time, they work slowly, they participate less than they could and they don’t focus their executive function on the learning happening.

And are there answers? Well, yes.

I’ve written before about episodic curiosity. When a pupil wants to learn in your subject they apply maximum attentional control to every aspect of learning in your lesson. It absolutely supercharges their progress. You could take the same child and move them to a different teacher or school and they would still be making awesome progress due to that level of attentional control. I recall a pupil bumping along at sub 4 for all of Year 10 and at the end of the academic year they told me they wanted to be a solicitor and asked what English grade they’d need to make this dream happen (needless to say, my answer was a shock to them). What happened next astonished me. They started paying attentional control to every aspect of every English lesson. They asked for and completed extra work. In the exam they scored an 8. I can’t take credit for that learning. But it taught me about the power of having a pupil motivated to learn in my subject. It taught me about epistemic curiosity and how important that is. When I really want to learn something, I really pay attention and the same is true for pupils!

We seem to be focused on cleaning up the cognitive landscape to remove extraneous load. We are using knowledge of studies from psychology to make remembering easier. We are very focused, rightly so, on behaviour. And then we watch child after child, in lesson after lesson, not pay attentional control. And we, as teachers, see it very often. There is a ceiling to CLT in lessons and a ceiling to behaviourist approaches. Those ceilings are that a child can simply withdraw or mute their attentional control. They might as well have 60 days a year off school instead, because that is the impact on the learning of some of those with the most reduced attentional control. There are lots of answers already out there and each pupil is unique and their personal solution might be complex. But until we start focusing on this area, then we are consigning a huge amount of learning hours to the dustbin of internal school avoidance.

Working memory of teachers – how anxiety affects quality of teaching

We all recall our first foray into teaching as a beginning teacher. Trying to manage the technology of SIMs for the register, meeting and greeting pupils at the door, remembering which childen have specific needs, checking for uniform, managing resources – it seemed to be there were so many things to remember and undertake. And then if you had behavioural issues as well – it could easily all overwhelm you. As experienced teachers, we know that behaviour, interruptions to our classrooms, faulty equipment and so forth, can intervene and make the basic job of teaching and adaptation exceptionally hard. But have you thought about looking at this from the perspective of cognitive science? In particular the focus on working memory?

Working memory has limitations. That’s readily established. It depends on a number of contextual factors, but regardless of those variables, it’s limited. Load it up too much with extraneous load and it stops the basic intrinsic task from being undertaken so easily. We think about this all the time for our pupils, but have we thought about it from the lens of a teacher?

There’s an interesting 2019 paper from Angelidis et al., on how acute cognitive performance anxiety increases threat-interference and impairs working memory performance. It starts from a readily established academic position that we all know about: if you stress about a situational context it affects your ability to do the task. Whether it’s public speaking or playing sport – anxiety can impair the execution. What the paper then goes on to do is to measure working memory using an established psychological test. They then cultivated stress through an established psychological method (ironically, for us as teachers, the stress is created by asking participants to perform a mathematical task whilst receiving scripted negative feedback. Maths anxiety really does need more focus!). What they discovered was that loading up the stress impaired working memory. Now to be clear, the paper acknowledges that it is established academically that some stress is helpful. Too little stress and you underperform. In particular, the focus is on anxiety, not just stress. The paper concludes anxiety is counter-productive to working memory.

Starting from this premise then, you begin to reflect on what teachers use working memory for and what things might impair this capacity. This is in no way comprehensive, but let us look at some basics.

Teachers use working memory to:

1.       Teach – the things we said at the start: managing resources, organising the lesson, asking questions, developing answers and so forth.

2.       To adapt. I separate this out because it relies on constant monitoring of students, how well they are undertaking a task and then intervening and adapting. It happens constantly and continuously as a teacher ensures that adaptation takes place and a feedback rich environment is present.

3.       Recall subject knowledge from long-term memory and apply it to the lesson.

4.       Monitor and manage behaviour. Again, there is a constant focus on behaviour as the teacher scans and ensures attention (and I use that term academically, e.g. attentional control) is maximised throughout the lesson. Very quickly we can see how too much overload, anxiety-related or simple overload could overwhelm working memory here.

5.       Follow non-negotiables. There will be tasks that always have to be followed regardless of the flow of lessons and we note that this is quite the debate in educational circles where they can be seen as unnecessary or interfere with a teacher’s ability to undertake other tasks.

6.       Ensure Ofsted compliance is being followed. I don’t know any teacher who doesn’t think about Ofsted and how they might ‘view’ the things that happen in the classroom. Writing, reading, marking – and if the school is expecting an Ofsted inspection there could be anxiety pushed onto teachers from SLT.

7.       Adult on adult bullying in the school workplace. Hierarchical, horizontal – it doesn’t matter. We all know it exists and is driving teachers from the profession. Half of the stories from that Facebook group for teachers that have left or are leaving the profession cite adult on adult bullying as the cause. That this stress can then impair teacher working memory and thus ability to teach shows that we have to be very careful in this area.

7.       Thinking about the observer’s thoughts before, during and after an observation. Anxiety about an observation can affect the very thing the observer is trying to observe.

8.       Non-teaching things. Let’s be honest here. Teachers are human. They think about divorce, children, bills, cancer, family, relationships, physical and mental health and so forth. These things could be very much related to anxiety and providing what the paper calls ‘threat-interference’ to their working memory capacity.

Quite quickly, we can all see that there are multitudes of stresses and anxiety-inducing factors that could reduce the capacity of a teacher’s working memory. There are also key pinch points in the year where anxiety and stress are high – parents’ evenings or during mock exam marking season for example. All these sources of stress would then have a direct impact on the positive things that we would like teachers to spend that working memory on. But not all stress is bad remember. Reviewing children’s access to learning and introducing adaptation is a healthy stress – it requires careful monitoring and intervention. Creating a feedback rich environment is helpful, but stressful. In a good way. Thinking hard about questions and questioning takes working memory capacity. Recalling subject knowledge really does need working memory capacity and focus and is eminently helpful for the lesson. But if you are trying to cope with poor behaviour then recalling subject knowledge becomes more challenging. If you have anxiety about poor behaviour, even when the behaviour isn’t present, it still affects working memory.

If we are to keep teachers in the profession then we have to focus on the working memory of teachers, not just pupils. We need to think about tackling things like poor behaviour. We need to question ourselves about the helpfulness and accuracy of observations as well as reflect on the impact of the anxiety produced in teachers by Ofsted and even things like non-negotiables. We should be focused on ensuring that things like providing support for teachers going through challenging times with family and health are readily available. Doing things such as these can free up capacity in working memory for the things that really matter in the lesson – the teaching and the adaptation. It’s time to focus on the working memory of teachers, not just pupils.

Dr James Shea

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Time to forget Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve?

Over the last decade, the conversation around cognitive science and psychology in education has grown ever louder, to the point at which these discourses have come to be seen as one of the dominant theories in contemporary education. Much of the discussion focuses on pedagogy including the role of memory and remembering, with theories of learning and teaching being based on the retrieval of information in the long term. Although the ability to remember information accurately is undoubtedly an important aspect of learning, forgetting is an important issue to consider when thinking about learning and seems to be not as widely discussed within education.

This blog will discuss the seminal work by Ebbinghaus and explore its role in the educational conversation and the many iterations of the forgetting curve which have emerged through teachers applying this to pedagogy.

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Ebbinghaus was an experimental psychologist who was interested in finding a mathematical relationship between the elapsed time post learning and forgetting. He conducted a number of experiments in the early 1880s in order to establish this.

In his experiments, Ebbinghaus attempted to learn a row of thirteen nonsense syllables until he was able to freely recall each one in the correct order. After a preset time interval, he would relearn the syllables, given the fact he had forgotten them, until he could once again freely recall each one in the correct order.  

It is important to recognise that Ebbinghaus’ view on forgetting was not a measure of how many syllables that could be recalled after a specific amount of time but the amount of time, or repetitions, it took to relearn the same list of syllables after forgetting. A measure he called savings. Savings can be presented as a decimal or a percentage and is calculated as follows:

If it took someone initially 10 minutes to learn the syllables but it only took them 8 minutes to relearn after a set time then the saving is 2 minutes. Savings is the 2/10 = 0.2

If the relearning took the same amount of time, then the savings would be 0 and if there was perfect recall without relearning, the saving would be 1 or 100%.

The original experimental results have been successfully replicated a number of times, but I am going to use data from the study by Murre and Dros in 2015 (paper can be found here) to discuss the forgetting curve due to the fidelity of their experiment. In their paper, Murre and Dros replicated Ebbinghaus’ experimental procedure and calculated savings using time. The resulting forgetting curve on a linear time scale is shown below:

The curve shows a general exponential decrease in savings. What is interesting is the higher than expected result for 1 day. Ebbinghaus also found this but he was able to fit the data point to the curve generated from his ‘forgetting equation’ so he overlooked this at the time. However, he did replicate, along with other subsequent researchers, this result after the publication of his work. This decrease or ‘slowing’ of forgetting from these experiments is thought to be due to the role of sleep in memory consolidation.

Interestingly, Murre and Dros recorded the number of correct responses (correct syllable in the correct position) during the relearning phases of their experiments. What this showed is that the proportion of correct answers after 20 minutes was marginally above 0.3 and this only decreased slightly at the longer time intervals.

Should we forget the curve?

From a position of experimental psychology the work of Ebbinghaus needs to be studied and remembered as it paved the way for psychology to have robust methods and rigour in the design of experiments that are still used today. The fact that the results of Ebbinghaus have been replicated a number of times is testament to this.

In terms of the educational conversation, it is useful to ask if we actually need a mathematical model (the graph with numbers) to tell us that learners forget. It is clear that what the Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve does show is that:

1. a high proportion of information that is learnt is rapidly forgotten 

2. the longer you leave before relearning something, the longer it will take you to relearn

I think I would be hard pushed to find a teacher that genuinely would disagree with these statements, with or without knowledge of the curve. The question we ask then, what use does awareness of Ebbinghaus’ curve brings to a teacher beyond the knowledge that forgetting takes place over a period of time after the point of learning?

Certainly, the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the curve is not helpful. Making claims like “you only remember x% of information after y time” is clearly untrue if you are using Ebbinghaus as your evidence base. Applying ideas like this to education is widely problematic and can result in unhelpful numbered things about forgetting, models like the infamous learning pyramid.

Additionally, there is a danger with using a mathematical model rather than just having good awareness that forgetting takes place and that there are well researched methods to remedy this. For example, we might say we forget 50% of something we have learned within an hour. This sounds plausible and whilst you might worry about all the different permutations, that’s the least of the problems. Using that premise, I could simply say, well I’ll double the information learned at the start and then they won’t forget what I intended them to learn. And of course, the teacher in you will say that’s nonsense.

Being focused on forgetting is a good thing, but it is important to think critically in our application of science just like Ebbinghaus himself was.