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Skip to 0 minutes and 15 seconds and fundamental to many teacher-student, and student-student interactions. Shared attention is when two or more people focus on the same thing. And we know that in adults and in children, this sharing of attention can stimulate the brain’s reward system, encouraging us to engage and to learn. Shared attention, in this sense, can therefore be its own reward. Helping us to understand why students can feel motivated by working in pairs or in groups. It also helps explain how asking students to communicate their ideas in different ways, can engage their interest in their learning. Whether this is through addressing the class, or through helping one another in pairs, to develop their understanding.

Students sharing knowledge and attention

Our motivation to share attention is a uniquely human characteristic and a fundamental to many teacher-student interactions.

It has also been shown to activate reward-related brain regions, attesting to the desirable nature of successfully prompting someone else to share attention with you (Schilbach et al., 2010). This helps explain how asking students to communicate their ideas in different ways can engage their interest in their learning, whether through addressing the class or through helping one another in pairs to master skills.

We’ve seen how shared attention activates the brain’s reward systems and gains the attention of students so that they are ready to learn – but how do we ensure that this shared attention leads to effective learning?

According to research carried out by the Open University:

“On the one hand, collaborative activity has been found to be a powerful aid to learning, in all subjects including mathematics and science, and for the development of ‘transferable’ reasoning and communication skills. On the other hand, in most classrooms, most of the time, group work has been shown to be quite unproductive, even a waste of time.” (Dawes, et al., n.d.)

Thinking Together

In the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology report, Thinking Together in the Primary Classroom, three types of group talk were identified:

  • Disputational Talk, which is characterized by disagreement and individualized decision making. There are few attempts to pool resources, to offer constructive criticism or make suggestions. Disputational talk also has some characteristic discourse features – short exchanges consisting of assertions and challenges or counter assertions (‘Yes, it is.’ ‘No it’s not!’).
  • Cumulative Talk, in which speakers build positively but uncritically on what the others have said. Partners use talk to construct ‘common knowledge’ by accumulation. Cumulative discourse is characterized by repetitions, confirmations and elaborations.
  • Exploratory Talk, in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas. Statements and suggestions are offered for joint consideration. These may be challenged and counter-challenged, but challenges are justified and alternative hypotheses are offered. Partners all actively participate, and opinions are sought and considered before decisions are jointly made. Compared with the other two types, in Exploratory Talk knowledge is made more publicly accountable and reasoning is more visible in the talk


As you read the descriptions, is this something you recognise in your classroom? Do older students still need support in developing their skills in exploratory talk?

It is beyond the time allocated for this course, but if you would like to read the research this is based on, you can find it here:

Talking and thinking together at Key Stage 1

Littleton, Karen; Mercer, Neil; Dawes, Lyn; Wegerif, Rupert; Rowe, Denise and Sams, Claire (2005). Talking and thinking together at Key Stage 1. Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development, 25(2) 167 -182.

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The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre