Of course the focusing strategies don't end after the first few minutes of class. That's why there are some backup techniques which the teacher can use at the start and throughout the session to maintain pupils' attention.

The Frozen Arm

Michael Grinder told me the story of when he was giving a talk in Germany accompanied by a translator. Michael had a lapel microphone so that his hands were free; the translator had a handheld mike. Throughout the conference he began to notice that the listeners were paying more attention to the translator than to himself, the guest speaker. Analysing this later he came to the conclusion that it was the translator's arm position that so concentrated audience attention. He called this gesture 'The Frozen Arm'.

Have you ever noticed in a discussion among a group of friends that when the arguments get heated people who want to interrupt may stretch out their arms towards the person speaking in an effort to grab their attention and be allowed to intervene? You have probably also witnessed the same hands up system at work in conferences or polite classrooms when an listener wants to have the floor. The upraised hand is even more powerful if the audience intervener keeps the arm in the air while speaking. It rivets the onlookers' attention.

 This insight is applicable to classrooms. When teachers observe that attention is waning while presenting content they can use a frozen arm, coupled with a short pause in speech and movement, to draw back group attention. The procedure for this is: Speak > Pause with Frozen hand > Continue. You may find it more comfortable and elegant to have a pen or chalk in your raised hand. It is just as effective.


Incomplete sentences...

The human brain craves completion. It likes information that makes sense. Perhaps that's why we all love stories. Inversely, the brain pauses in slight confusion when it is presented with a half-finished message. That's how we can use it in class. To refocus a group's attention say something which is incomplete. For example, in a voice slightly louder than normal say:

“As we were saying yesterday...” or “We were just talking about...” Then pause.

The effect on the listeners is to stop them in their tracks and the pause in voice and movement emphasises the void in sense. Those who look up will see you standing still, with a frozen arm for more effect. The overall result is a non-verbal call to the group to cease what they are doing and follow you. No need for the teacher to stare at the class, just wait for a few seconds until the group is attentive again and continue as if nothing had happened. No confrontation, no burnout, teacher pupil relationships intact.

Break and Breathe

 It is known that listeners remember most what they experience at the beginning and the end of an content input. It makes sense, then, to divide your lessons into short chunks so that there are many beginnings and endings. This strategy is useful when you want to give yourself  a new start.

Just as you end one section of information move out of your present physical position and take a breath: break and breathe. This prepares your audience to accept that there is a moment of change and a fresh start is about to take place. It keeps them alert.

Of course a new start is also useful if you happen to make a mistake and want to correct the error. Notice when professional footballers tackle too hard and cause an opponent to fall. The referee signals a foul. The player at fault often drops down to busy himself with his bootlaces. He has effected a quite disappearance act and is now out of general sight. Once the free kick has taken place and the pressure is off the player stands up and continues play. He has just performed a break and breathe.

As a teacher you can use the same move in order to keep communication clear. If you suddenly realise you have just given wrong information by error, simply stop, move and breathe. This creates temporal amnesia in the learners' minds and gives you the opportunity to restart with the correct information and avoid confusion.

Don't Blink!

In a stand-off between two people there is well-known advice in English: “Don't blink first!”. The thinking behind this is that the first person to blink in a mutual confrontation shows weakness. Observe two boxers at the start of a fight. The referee brings them together and lectures them on fair play. Meanwhile the contestants simply stare at each other and neither blinks. Both display strength.When film actors recite monologues they don't blink in order to rivet audience attention : examples. View Michael Caine's master class clip on blinking.

In a teaching situation it is natural to blink, if only to lubricate your eyes from time to time. However when you are issuing an order that you expect to be obeyed refraining from blinking will underline the seriousness of your communiqué and the fact that you speak from a position of authority. Think about the end of class when you give homework for the next day or during one of the pauses you use to regain group attention. On these occasions not blinking will send a strong supporting non-verbal message that you mean what you say.

Visual Instructions

An added technique to focus attention at the outset or during the lesson is to have visual content displayed on-screen or on the board. You can direct class attention to this backup information at any point in the teaching hour and so have all eyes looking at the same place.

Before you begin the lesson take a moment to jot up a shorthand overview of the content so that when you start speaking the class already has some information about what you are going to say. These visual cues also help those who get lost during the explanations retrieve the thread of your thinking.

The same is true during the lesson. When you see attention waning you can pause and indicate the board information to regroup pupils' attention using the visuals coordinated with a hand gesture.

Notice that you are also doubling input by simultaneously showing visual content and speaking about it.


Davis Sousa, an educationalist who apples neuroscience to teaching, describes the scientifically recognised effect of primacy and recency as follows “During a learning episode, we remember best that which comes first, second best that which comes last, and least that which comes just past the middle.” From a management point of view this suggests that if we are to maintain high attention by ensuring that the group is able to follow the lesson as well as memorise it optimally then teachers are advised to organise the input in as many beginnings and ends as possible. The material you are reading at present is set up in chapters, subsections and paragraphs so that you receive the information in short bursts which introduce, briefly describe then finalise the points. You can decide whether or not this presentation of the content maintains your attention as well as making the ideas memorable.

Say a number

We are all mesmerised by numbers. Possibly that is why politicians use statistics so often. Just saying a percentage makes our argument appear so much more potent and believable. We somehow perceive quantity as the equivalent of truth.

You may have heard speakers initiate a conference or their side of the argument by stating that they have three things to say. This is a smart way of telling listeners that the intervention will be finite and encourages them to wait for the last point.      Teachers can use this device to keep their pupils on track. Announce that you are going to talk about x number of points (which are visually pre-displayed on the board). To help retain attention you gesture to each location as you finish one idea and go on to another, thus effectively starting anew. During the course of the lesson you can repeat this strategy to revive the group's attention by quickly reviewing what has been covered and what is to come.

Tell a story

As mentioned above, the brain craves wholeness. That may be the reason why we all find stories so attractive. They bring comfort in a chaotic world and confer a meaning to it through the very structure of the narrative. Stories make sense.

The suggestion here is not that teachers should simply entertain their pupils but that edutainment through story-telling can be a powerful force for learning. If you can  link a narrative to your content it brings it to life and makes it memorable. This is why you will find stories in italics in this book. You can judge whether they help your understanding and fix content in your memory.