Beyond the PM’s opportunity goal: getting students to focus

Reading in the classroomIf Julia Gillard is known for one policy direction, it is her advocacy of making educational opportunities available to all. Her passion for this idea is clearly genuine, and has survived her move from Minister of Education to Prime Minister. It is also personal. She enjoyed her schooldays at a good government school (Unley High, across from my nana’s house on Kitchener Avenue) and believes everyone should have access to that sort of quality.

Providing opportunity is a wonderful goal. The ALP in particular has a rich history of concern about it. And innovations like the MySchool website, it seems to me, actually enrich the debate by giving people an idea about how we’re actually doing in spreading educational opportunity.

But when I have conversations with people about educating our kids, opportunity is not the issue that comes us the most. People talk instead about the importance of getting their kids to focus. This is a surprisingly consistent result. It comes up when I talk with the theatre director and musician with three brilliant kids, and when I run into the Indigenous woman in her 60s who take care of kids from troubled homes, and when I chat with Mark down at the footy club who has a middling-smart son at a solid public school.

Opportunity is not what they worry about. They are not rich people – some of them are genuinely struggling – but they can always scrape together the money for textbooks, new or secondhand. They have Internet connections and can see the enormous amount of great material available on the Web. The local public schools are good, though not perfect. They reckon the teachers are decent people.

Their concern and those of many others – myself included – is broadly the same: to extract the most from their education, kids need to be able to immerse themselves in what they are studying, and a lot of kids just aren’t doing that.

All these people see student focus as vital if kids are going to really benefit from their schooling. They also think it’s getting harder. If television made it trickier, the Internet makes it far tougher still: kids often need the ‘Net for homework, or at least claim to, but once connected they succumb to the delights of Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and that new blog about … whatever. Quite correctly, parents and guardians suspect “multitasking” means “doing several things half-arsed rather than one thing well”. And they worry that the broader cultural signals don’t tell kids that they need to focus on intellectual work in order to realise its rewards.

Good schools seem to understand this. At a recent high school parents’ night, I sat in a room of parents and teachers all concerned about and struggling with the same challenge. We discussed strategies ranging from having kids do their homework in public areas of the house to buying routers that block Facebook access. (The school involved was Northcote High School in Melbourne, which I have come to admire for the high quality of its interaction with parents. I know of at least one pricey private school which could learn a great deal from them.)

Yet I don’t see much research work looking at this question. ACER, for instance, doesn’t seem to be publishing on it.

So my first question is: Does anyone know of work being done on getting students focused and immersed?

My second question is: is the focus issue as widespread a concern in the community as I think it is?

About David Walker

David Walker runs editorial consultancy Shorewalker DMS (, editing and advising business and government on reports and other editorial content. Newsletter: . Among other roles, David has edited the award-winning Acuity and INTHEBLACK magazines, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held senior policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He is a former economics writer for The Age and News Ltd. He has qualifications in law and corporate finance.
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Rafe Champion
12 years ago

Supporting what you say, some research on “computers for kids” in the US found that the outcome was generally negative except in the homes where parents supervised and limited the use of the computers.

I think the “education revolution” (what was it again?) has achieved very little because the real revolution that we need involves the cooperation of parents and teachers to keep the kids focussed on learning. So more strength to your arm!

Don Arthur
12 years ago

David Brooks wrote about how challenging it is to get kids to focus in his book the Social Animal.

Here’s a YouTube version of the chapter:

John Passant
12 years ago

Thanks David. Having recently returned to academia after 14 years’ absence II have been thinking about similar issues for University students. of course one of the pressures there is to work to earn enough to live to be able to study, but the work requirement often mean there is no time to study.

On top of that, many students coming into university do not seem to have a passion for their subjects or a commitment to do the basic learning work. Their expectation is to be spoon fed, and I wonder if that isn’t a consequence in part of what you talk about here – the lack of focus that is trained into students by life. This may men that by the time they reach university this learned lack of focus becomes destructive of critical enquiry, reflection and analysis.

This to me is reflected in the ambiguous response to attendance and the view that just doing a sloppy job towards the end of semester on a an assignment, or doing a few hours preparation before an exam will be enough to get through, rather than consistent work (including attending lectures and tutorials) over a semester.

Anyway, sorry if my comments are a little off point.I hope they flow from your piece.

I do worry about the future of our society if my admittedly limited experience can be generalised for many students at university. On the other hand I may just be an old fogey.

Simon Musgrave
Simon Musgrave
12 years ago

David Walker@2

I remember a conversation with a fellow linguist in Britain a few years back where he advocated teaching programming to kids in school as a way to teach the importance of spelling and punctuation: get it wrong and your code won’t run so it is worth paying attention to that boring stuff. Makes sense to me!

And yes, data structures would be good also….

Nicholas Gruen
12 years ago

Thanks David,

Another example of something staring us in the face, which the vast resources of government aren’t doing much about. To be fair I guess it’s hard for them, as value laden as the issues are. (And of course they’re not well resourced per pupil, but they do have the resources to produce decent general responses to this issue.

Interestingly the kinds of services that I’m aware of that schools access to brief themselves on this are private consultancies run often by single practitioners who write books and appear on the Morning show. NTTAWWT, but I find when I question them they don’t know much and that most of their shtick is fairly lightweight.

It’s certainly a difficult problem.

One thing I continue to be amazed about is that there aren’t easily accessible commercial products – hardware and software – that enable one to control one’s wifi. If there are, and they don’t take a PhD to figure out how to configure I’ll be out buying them.

12 years ago

Actually, I don’t really see what’s wrong with kids playing with Facebook and so on — is it that people look down on it simply because it’s something their generation didn’t do? Or is it that parents are getting older and have more expectations of their children than they did 30 years ago? or perhaps it’s something else. To me it’s far better than mindless TV, since it involves writing, socializing, etc. (and possibly discussing homework!). Sure there’s drawbacks, and sure some kids never get off it, but there always have been distractions and parents often want more from than kids than is realistic, and that has pitfalls as well. There are also many places where kids still focus on study excessively (like Korea) where these things exsit and are used to an even greater extent than here, so I’m not if they’re a cause of the problem rather than just symptoms.

12 years ago

I think the focus issue is more about motivation. Since kids are basically never stretched or challenged at school they don’t have any motivation to really push themselves so they don’t do it…

Incurious and Unread (aka Dave)
Incurious and Unread (aka Dave)
12 years ago

‘Twas ever thus.

derrida derider
derrida derider
12 years ago

‘Twas ever thus because reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and, above all, sitting still and focusing on a single thing for extended periods are things that the plains ape was never shaped for by evolution – especially juvenile apes. Instead of seeing ADD as an aberration, I wonder if it’s not really the evolutionary norm.

That we can slowly shape in our kids the neural wherewithal to overcome this is testimony to the flexibility of that big brain. But the wonder is not that we can’t always do this, the wonder is that with care and effort we mostly CAN.

PS – I do think dumb comments such as Patrick @8 reflect our own distorted memories of school. As someone once said, everyone thinks they’re an expert on education simply because they all went to school.

12 years ago

I think music is good for this. Doesn’t have to be a ‘hard’ instrument like piano or violin – maybe a clarinet or guitar or some other instrument that they can join an ensemble with.

Anyway if they get started off early (age 6) a parent can sit with them for the first few months of practicing at home, which establishes a daily period of concentrated practice. Once kids know how to concentrate at something, they can apply it to other areas.

Some sports training might do the same for kids inclined that way.