Skip to 0 minutes and 15 secondsand 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.)

Read and reflect

Read the first three pages of this report. Although this report is based on a primary setting, group work is used throughout all phases of education and across all subjects.

As you read the report consider whether this is something you recognise in your classroom. Do older students still need support in developing their skills in exploratory talk?

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This video is from the free online course:

The Science of Learning

National STEM Learning Centre