Education, Motivation & ADHD

By Charles Moran


I caused a bit of a ruckus several years ago amongst members of a CompuServe ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) forum by rashly commenting that ADHD was an invented condition. Perhaps they were particularly annoyed that I didn't even have children at the time, not even one with that diagnosis.

I didn't mean to upset them. I can almost see where they're coming from and I guess that, for them, as parents, to hand their kids over (with a sigh of relief perhaps?) to be dosed with Ritalin by men in white coats, they must have been exposed to some extreme child behaviour.

I just don't think the problem was what they thought it was. Some time after making my thoughtless remarks, I tried to substantiate my viewpoint by uploading something I'd written about "attention" to the forum's information database, where it attracted mild interest.

Later, I followed that up with a short article about the use of "advertising" in education, which was actually about providing incentives to learn. I don't believe learning for its own sake is ever justified, unless there is nothing more useful a person could find to do. I've updated both pieces and incorporated them into this article.

Reasons for Writing

One reason for revisiting the subject now is that I'm interested in children as much now as I was then, and care what happens to them.

My other reasons do NOT include having had a child of my own in the meantime, or having ever had this diagnosis myself. I was the very opposite of hyperactive throughout my own schooling; on the contrary, I spent a lot of class time daydreaming.

I remember sitting at a Primary School desk, in what seems now to be a different universe. I felt proud of the good-natured atmosphere that prevailed in our classroom and believed our generation was going to be different from any before. We would make a clean break from the past and avoid making any of their mistakes.

How wrong can a kid get? It appears that, in each new generation that has grown up since then-and there have been several-an ever greater number are born with no vision of a better future.

Instead, they condemn themselves, at an ever younger age it seems, to re-enact the brutalities of the past. Every day, yet another ruthless young killer hits the news-stands. Often, it's someone half my age, sometimes barely more than a semiliterate child.

Despite the headlines, we shouldn't panic. The children of today are as much a mixed bag as those of yesterday. Some will grow up to nurture life, others to destroy it. Fortunately, the potential destroyers are in the minority.

Unfortunately, because destruction needs far less intelligence and skill than creativity, it only takes one dull-witted school dropout to reduce the work of an entire community to rubble.

There is no guarantee that, with a better education, that individual would take a more constructive path, but at least they might understand their options well enough to make a choice.

All of which brings me to my second reason, a longstanding interest and belief in education. Effectively done, it is the single most beneficial service that anyone can do for the whole community. Why is this?

Firstly, the most expensive thing in the world is ignorance. Not just in money, but also in everything in life we value, including life itself. Only knowledge (actually, the right idea at the right time) ever spares us the cost of ignorance. It is therefore the world's most precious commodity.

What I mean is, you may never have to sacrifice more to learn certain facts than you could lose by not having the information when you needed it. Since the driving force of education is the spread of information, no investment of time, energy or money in education would be too great, if it resulted in a more effective service.

Secondly, thanks to compulsory schooling, formal education benefits from a "captive audience". It is one of the few situations where children are mustered in one place. This presents educators with the opportunity of teaching them precisely the information they will need throughout life to survive and prosper in ways that are, if not beneficial, at least innocuous to those around them.

Thirdly, formal schooling begins at an age when most children are still open to change. Without neglecting those willing to co-operate, the disruptive ones need all the help they can get during their window of accessibility. You may find them, even into their 'teens, still struggling to avoid the grim fate that everyone else "agrees" they are destined for.

The Role of Education

And so we come to the question of who takes responsibility for all the quiet (and not so quiet) tragedies played out in lives where ignorance and confusion are allowed to prevail, not to mention the misery inflicted on others as a consequence.

There are many (some might say too many) stakeholders. National government; the Local Authorities; Ofsted; Social Services; the NHS; the Police; religious bodies; the schools themselves and, of course, parents. Also, children themselves have some responsibility for their own future.

With so many players, it's important for each to know the scope and limits of their part in education. Lack of clarity is sure to be one cause of educational failures in itself. Here's how I see their different roles.

Health, learning or social problems not resolved by any of these agencies before a person reaches adulthood may continue indefinitely, becoming ever more convoluted and confused. Consequently, they tie the NHS, Social Services and Police, in particular, into a never-ending cycle of attempted solutions and damage limitation.

The Buck Stops Where?

The responsibilities of parents and schools for the effective education of young people are more relevant than those of any State authority, since they are the ones in direct contact with children. In purely educational matters though, the schools and their teachers are key.

Some teachers may be uncomfortable with this viewpoint, just as, for the most part, they are uneasy with their work being judged through a national system of testing. Nevertheless, the phrase "Take the bull by the horns" applies to teachers more than to anyone else.

I have some sympathy with those who feel unduly burdened with the demands of society to consistently achieve the highest standards of education in every case, because the process of teaching is more complex now than it used to be.

Teaching, Old-School

There are two distinct steps to the process of teaching-that fact hasn't changed:

  1. To obtain the willingness of each student to learn or, at least, their agreement to be taught, no matter how grudgingly.
  2. To connect the student with sources of curriculum material (which may include the teacher), so that they receive, interact with and understand the information.

Success in the second step depends on success in the first. Here, the wording "each student" is not accidental, for if even a single student won't co-operate, he or she can cause enough disruption to halt progress for an entire class.

As a non-teacher, I can only imagine, and will probably never know, just how hard it must be to teach some kids anything. However I suspect that difficulty level is no greater than it ever was. What has changed is the range of solutions available.

The general tendency over the past few centuries is for the treatment of children to become less and less authoritarian. By the end of the 20th century there was, in the western world, a broad, official recognition of the right of children not to be physically beaten into obedience. This obviously applies in education also.

During my own school days in the 1960s, corporal punishment was still common. Its supporters would no doubt argue that a "short, sharp shock" has the effect of reminding disruptive pupils of the law of Karma: what goes around comes around.

I don't think I ever witnessed physical punishment used in school except as a response to problems at step 1 of the teaching process. In any case, using it as "treatment" for learning difficulties, i.e. for genuine problems with absorbing information, is never justifiable and has never worked. Bluntly, it is below contempt.

At step 1, getting the students' agreement to be taught is the general principle. In practice, this boils down to two actions, repeated as often as necessary for education to occur: eliminating distractions and commanding attention. Strategies for doing this, that I was aware of, were on a scale roughly as follows, beginning with the most severe:

  1. Expulsion of the most disruptive from school
  2. Caning, leg-slapping, knuckle-rapping, etc. by the class- or head-teacher, as a correction to the offender and deterrent to others
  3. Physical manhandling or restraint
  4. Verbal or physical humiliation of students before their peers, on grounds of their behaviour.
  5. Impositions on a student's free time by way of detention or "lines", for example (writing out a phrase or sentence repeatedly)
  6. Threat of more serious penalties
  7. Anger, raised voice, desk-thumping, etc.
  8. Promoting attentive students as an example to be followed.
  9. Gaining the respect of students through the teacher's "presence", good interpersonal skills, etc.

My recollection of those who taught me was that they all knew their subject well enough and used tried and tested formulae for teaching it. In my experience, none were ever dismissed for lack of results, but perhaps that was because poor results were not considered grounds for dismissal.

Nevertheless, I assume that the great majority of them achieved an adequate percentage of exam passes and an acceptable proportion of failures. As far as discipline was concerned, this majority did not command enormous respect but, importantly, neither were they the subject of much scorn or ridicule.

By my observation, they chiefly used strategies at levels 5 to 8 in the scale to inhibit distractions and hold students' attention, then levels below 5 only if higher levels failed. However, there was a small minority who occupied the extremes of competence and incompetence in the craft of teaching, which of course includes step 1. As you might expect, the best usually operated at levels 8 and 9 on the list, the worst at level 4 and below.


The options of the modern teacher for action in the initial step have changed. There is still the last resort of expulsion or permanent exclusion from school (if there's a difference, I hope someone in the profession will let me know). Corporal punishment in schools is unlawful, and any sort of physical contact is less hazardous for the student than the teacher, who could end up being sued by the parents for "child abuse".

It seems that exclusion on a temporary or permanent basis is more commonly used now in place of those actions no longer allowed. I cannot remember any specific instance of it when I was at school. The other option introduced since that time is the referral of students for psychiatric assessment, sometimes resulting in the diagnosis of ADHD and medication being prescribed.

For a long time, the indicated medication has been the drug Ritalin. Its effectiveness has been seriously called into question only recently, although the medical establishment has long acknowledged the side-effect that children still taking it at the onset of puberty suffer from suicidal thoughts. Brand new research has concluded, I hear, that lack of sleep may cause ADHD. So, sleep deprivation causes mental and physical problems-what a bombshell!

Let Me Through, I'm a Doctor

It's obvious that ADHD as a diagnosis, and Ritalin as a treatment, are both about solving problems at step 1 of the educational process, removing distractions and commanding attention.

In fact, the diagnosis itself is conveniently tailored to present itself as a solution to those issues. "Hyperactivity" could refer to the distraction caused in class by students who fidget, gesture or shift position frequently, "Attention Deficit" to those same students' inability to focus.

Also very conveniently, the diagnosis could be seen as a way of unloading all responsibility for step 1 difficulties from teacher to student. Treat them as somehow mentally defective and give them a pill, and the job's done. Too convenient, perhaps. There is something deeply fishy going on here.

Actually, the introduction of modern psychological jargon into education is part of a gradual, wider change, in my view not for the better. Since the second half of the 20th century, the psychiatric profession has taken ever bolder steps into non-medical fields, offering to handle, with various therapies, any social problems affecting those areas.

In doing this, they take advantage of a human weakness. There is perhaps nothing more daunting in interpersonal relationships than feeling the need to interfere in the life of someone who appears to be in control, but is (to you) obviously heading over a cliff-edge. If we act and get it wrong, we risk alienating the person.

Often therefore, with deep guilt, we do nothing at all or we delay intervening until the individual has fallen down and is too weak to object. What a relief it is when someone steps forward and says "I'm an expert. Leave this to me." How willing we are to sign over whatever obligation we felt! How generously we pay whoever is prepared to accept it!

But what if the experts aren't all they claim to be? According to modern psychiatry, all mental problems can be reduced to a chemical imbalance in the brain. One question: if so, what caused the imbalance in the first place? What prevents brain chemistry from re-balancing itself? You see. Under interrogation, the logic just doesn't stand up.

The Pill-Pop Generations

Nevertheless, we collaborate with the encroachment of these self-proclaimed experts on our daily lives because, like sewer-workers and embalmers, they seem willing to do what we'd prefer to avoid.

The spread of brain-chemistry theory has (coincidentally?) mirrored the development of mass production in the pharmaceutical industry which, like any modern business, uses global media, communications and transportation networks to promote and distribute its products as widely as possible.

This isn't all bad. Physical diseases which were previously commonplace and fatal have become rare and treatable. Despite these high-visibility successes however, it is still dangerous to assume that prescription drugs will solve all our problems, physical and mental-but we do.

Years of clever marketing and advertising, endorsements from medical authorities and the love affair of the NHS with the pharmaceutical companies have ensured that, for most people, pill-popping is the first resort for all manner of troubles. Is it any wonder that generations born since the 1960s seem to look for happiness under the cap of a pill bottle?


Knowing the Lingo

In Italy long ago, it was the political writings of Greek philosophers which inspired the founders of Rome to set it up as a democratic city-state which became the centre of a vast and powerful empire. The Romans regarded ancient Greece as the seat of learning, the cradle of civilisation, the wellspring of free speech, (etc. etc.)

In the rest of Europe, Rome itself was revered as a model of cultured civilisation from before the time of Christ until long after its empire had fallen. This was partly because the Romans were quite good at organisation and administration, and partly because the armies of the Empire in their prime had beaten everyone else to a pulp, and anything that strong demanded respect.

At its height, the Empire expanded by invading neighbouring countries, ruthlessly suppressing any resistance and installing a Roman governor to rule over them. He, of course, spoke the language of ancient Rome, Latin. So, for any of the locals who wanted to be well in with the governor, it was a smart move to learn the lingo.

When the Roman Emperor converted to Christianity, where better to locate the Church's headquarters than in Rome? It's still there of course. Church services were in Latin. The Bible, in Latin, was copied by generation after generation of monastic scribes down the centuries.

In the Middle Ages, the monasteries were the principal centres of education as well as religion. Literacy was a privilege of the rich and powerful, and those who learned to read and write did so in Latin. Because Rome inherited much of its culture from Athens, ancient Greek was also in the syllabus.

The impact of the Roman Empire reached down the ages and into all areas of human activity. Because of the close links between the legal profession and the educated ruling classes, its literature included many Latin terms, such as habeas corpus, affidavit and caveat emptor.

At whatever point in history the medical profession were deciding on names for parts of the body, they took them from Latin-cranium, scapula, gluteus maximus-and ancient Greek: aneurism, hypodermic, anaemia.

Scientific subjects of all kinds have lifted their terminology from these old languages. Ordinary people are vaguely familiar with such words in the context of science but don't know what they mean. They assume that any similar-sounding word must be "scientific" or "official", full of hidden knowledge and deeply meaningful-and they are impressed.

Consequently, any group or organisation wishing to impress others by portraying themselves as genuine, professional experts using well-established scientific methods in their field could do so just by using Latin or Greek-sounding jargon. This is how psychology and psychiatry operate.

I'm not saying that just because they use Latin and Greek as sources for terminology. There is an excellent case for resorting to Latin and Greek for names-nothing to do with authority or status. If a genuine researcher discovers a new phenomenon not described anywhere else, its new name has to come from somewhere.

The problem with modern psychological terms is that, when you analyse them, they are complex, scientific-sounding expressions for the most banal, superficial observations. To appreciate this, you really have to know the lingo. One clear example of this is dyslexia.

This is an invented word which supposedly describes an inability to recognise or register words on a page, a kind of "word-blindness" perhaps. But look more closely, at where the word comes from. It breaks down into two parts, both from ancient Greek. Dys means "bad" or "difficult", and lexia means "reading".

You see? The word sounds like it represents a profound scientific understanding of a carefully observed medical condition, difficult to understand except for a trained specialist. In fact, it is no more than a "statement of the bleedin' obvious", but in a strange language.

Of course, there have always been people who have severe difficulty reading, but when their condition is labelled dyslexia, it is perceived differently by the lay public-and, importantly, by educators who don't realise what's happening.

To them, it no longer looks like an educational problem with a possible educational solution, but a medical condition needing treatment which only a psychologist is qualified to provide. This is how psychology and psychiatry insinuate themselves into the education system.


So, how does understanding the language apply to the diagnosis of "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?" The term itself isn't made up of any Latin or ancient Greek except hyper, meaning "over" or "excessively". But the trick-sorry, I mean principle-is the same: using complex language to make a banal, unoriginal observation.

Let's start with "Hyperactivity". Literally, it means "too much activity". This immediately raises two questions: "how much is too much?" and "according to whom?" At what point does "very active" or "full of energy", which are generally positive qualities, become "too active", which is negative?

Well, of course there is no fixed threshold beyond which "very much" of anything becomes "too" much. For that reason, the diagnosis of hyperactivity is:

  1. Subjective. It is almost certain to be affected by the personality, attitude and state of mind of whoever does the assessment.
  2. Relative to the circumstances. For instance, in a classroom where there was an exceptionally high expectation of quietness, even a moderate activity level would appear too much by contrast. The activity level on a football field would be inappropriate in class, but the same is true vice versa.
  3. Unlikely to be impartial. No assessment of a student would even be initiated unless someone had already noticed "something wrong" with them. The assessor would be of an older generation, probably slower through age, possibly less tolerant of motion and not well able to empathise with the young.

Occasionally, it becomes necessary in life to take things relatively slowly. When pouring hot metal into moulds or stacking a pyramid of champagne glasses, for instance. Not all the time, however. There are wider issues here.

The Wider Issues

The calmest, quietest, most relaxed, most inactive thing in the world is a corpse.

Death is the ultimate result of slowing down. As they age, most people accept a gradual decrease in their own mobility, but some also fixate on reducing levels of activity around them. This is a sign that they are not only, bit by bit, giving up on life for themselves, but also abandoning the struggle to make a better life for anyone else.

Children, unless they have the fight knocked out of them by their elders, retain a belief in their own immortality and the hope that, through action, they can change the world. A normal child will see constant demands from the old to slow down for what they are, invitations to consort prematurely with death, and react by becoming even more active.

With those that would complain of hyperactivity (parents, teachers) and those that would assess and diagnose it (school counsellors, child psychologists, psychiatrists) most likely of a similar age, the odds are most definitely stacked against the child.

Watch Your Language

The first part of the "disorder", "Attention Deficit", means nothing more nor less than "shortage of attention". Now, there is something intrinsically misguided in the notion that anyone can run short of attention. To appreciate why, we'll take a look at attention in more depth, but first a few words about... words, actually.

Using language involves converting ideas into spoken or written words. To the extent that words are objects, the ideas they encapsulate become objects also. In that form, they can be communicated across distances and, when written down, across time. This is the natural and necessary process by which we share ideas with one another.

However, the system isn't perfect. Words get kicked around indiscriminately from person to person and, just as a football which is constantly in play eventually gets damaged and caked in mud, so the ideas behind those words we use most frequently-their meaning-can become indistinct or even lost over time.

Take love, for instance. As a concept, it has no fixed place, form or time. As a word, "love" is a convenient "umbrella" term covering a huge variety of attitudes, emotions and behaviour across a wide range of relationships. It represents far too many things to list here.

People who have difficulty "finding love" will be familiar with the word in many contexts but lack understanding of it. They expect to find it like finding a hoard of Saxon gold under the putting green at the tenth hole. They hope to "fall in love" like falling into a vat of cider. That isn't how love works.

The word "attention" is also used quite loosely in various situations. It can be paid, given, drawn, grabbed and even stood-to by soldiers. In this very article, I've spoken of both "holding" and "commanding" attention. In short, there is a lot of forceful manipulation associated with it, but no clue in any of these common phrases as to what it really is.

Psychologists don't have a clue what it is either. The phrase "Attention Deficit" implies that it is some kind of semisolid or fluid which a person can run out of like soap powder or coffee granules. Presumably, only the prescribed medication can replenish supplies!

In reality, the slang word "psychobabble" is entirely appropriate here. All that its creators did was take the arbitrary notion that the mind can run low on attention and expressed it in a way that would sound complex and "scientific". This shabby subterfuge hints at how shallow the science behind the language actually is.

The Hidden Agenda

The tragic difference between the psychiatric profession's ignorance of its subject matter and anyone else's, is that its people present themselves as experts on the problems of education. What is worse, nation after nation is placing the fate of its future generations in their shaky hands.

There is another complication, which makes the resolution of these problems through psychiatric intervention even less likely. The diagnosis of ADHD draws attention to attention itself, which introverts people and compounds any stress they already feel on the subject.

There's no doubt we humans are touchy about attention, especially as children, but why? Perhaps we object to others' efforts to control something so close to who we really are, since what we choose to pay attention to says much about our inner selves.

On the subject of psychiatric treatment for ADHD, perhaps we sense that it may be a bogus solution to a dubious problem. We may question whether it was intended to solve anything in the first place. Well, those instincts are correct. The aim of psychiatrists acting within the field of education is not the resolution of the very real problems that exist there.

Their purpose in that area is to create a niche for themselves in identifying and assessing "problem students". This implies long-term case management and possible medication of those who fit the profile-not to mention the long-term public expense of professional fees and prescriptions.

What is Attention?

Having said what attention isn't, perhaps it's time to look at what it is. Like "love", the word is an "umbrella" term for a set of thought patterns, choices and actions, a feature of human behaviour. Even words like "alertness" and "concentration" don't add much to our understanding as they just substitute one word for another. Here's a suggested definition:

Attention is the selection of priorities for thought, awareness or effort, motivated by interest or concern, with the purpose of gaining information or exercising control, so as to increase the probability of survival or success.

In the cold, hard, dog-eat-dog world, any advanced living organism needs to be constantly alert to their environment, so as to perceive assets or liabilities to survival as they appear. An asset could be either a survival aid or a resource; a liability might be a threat or obstacle. Since the organism's purpose is to survive, these are its priorities.

The same applies to us humans. Any that we recognise is mentally allocated a place on a scale, which I call our "personal order of priorities" ("POP"). The ranking of items on this scale determines how much of our resources we are prepared to dedicate to each, compared to the rest.

Here's an example. The purpose of a long-distance trucker is to reach his destination on schedule, with his vehicle and its load intact. This is what he does to survive, and of course he himself must also survive the trip! For the best chance of success, he must have complete, up-to-date input on survival assets and liabilities in that environment.

Assets would include road signs (aids) and filling stations (resources). Liabilities could consist of tornadoes on the horizon (threats) and fallen trees in the road (obstacles). The road itself is a survival aid since it levels the rocky terrain, which would otherwise be an obstacle.

External awareness involves all the senses, in particular sight, hearing and smell. Of these three, the last two function equally well through 360 degrees around us, but what they tell us about our surroundings is limited. Our eyes are the source of much more detailed information, but they operate only within our field of sight, about 140 degrees for in-depth vision.

This makes sense considering the structure of the body. The human head and torso, in an upright but relaxed state, naturally face the same way, which is also the direction we usually walk. Under normal circumstances, we are more likely to encounter unfamiliarity from the direction in which we're going than from the place we came from. Therefore, ordinarily, we only need the most detailed sensory input-the visual-from the 140 degrees of world that lie directly ahead of us.

Let's see how this applies to our trucker. Being well-rested and sharp, he is generally alert to the world around him but, in terms of attention, his awareness is divided amongst items on his own personal order of priorities. Their relative positions should be in alignment with his purpose, mentioned earlier (to reach his destination alive, on schedule and with his vehicle and load intact), and might read as follows, with the highest at the top:

Trucker's POP

  1. The road and traffic ahead
  2. The dashboard gauges (fuel, speedometer, mileage, clock, etc.)
  3. Road signs and traffic signals
  4. Traffic following his truck
  5. His sat-nav's display and directions
  6. Traffic reports on the radio
  7. Visible weather conditions
  8. Radio weather reports
  9. Music broadcasts (to overcome boredom!)

The duration and frequency of occasions that the driver applied his eyes or ears to any of the above items would be proportional to its position on the scale.

He would, for instance, spend most time looking in the direction he was travelling, at the horizon, verges, lane markings and so on. He would probably check the position of traffic behind him more often than he would consult his sat-nav, but less often than he would take note of signs beside the road.

Logic tells us that, if he continued to follow this routine while driving, he would be much more likely to reach his destination without incident than if, for example, he took more interest in the radio music than in the traffic ahead of him!

In the wild, animals low on the food chain are constantly at risk of being eaten and are routinely in "full alert" mode, scanning their surroundings visually through 360 degrees horizontally and 90 degrees vertically, looking for anything that might endanger them or protect them from danger. Think of meerkats on sentry duty and you get the picture.

When we humans find ourselves in exceptionally hostile or unfamiliar territory, we do likewise. When we spot a survival aid or threat, our visual scanning angle momentarily narrows to span that one objective alone, in order to gather more sensory information and assess its potential for good or harm.

In the event we find nothing of danger, or ample protection, we grow more confident and our vision returns to normal, i.e. scanning mainly ahead.

While on the move, our trucker hears a tapping noise from his vehicle's trailer. Immediately, his POP adjusts to accommodate this new sound. He becomes more concerned with getting information from behind his cab than in front. He pulls over, gets out and walks around his rig, checking for problems. This is the 21st century trucking equivalent of "360 degree scanning!"

He locates the cause of the tapping. One of the straps used to secure his load had come loose and was flailing around in the slipstream. He makes it fast it and continues on his way.

To summarise. What we are chiefly aware of in any situation, and how much more conscious we are to it than of other things, varies according to the type of situation and how it develops. That, in purely biological and mechanical terms, is the process we call "attention".

Outer and Inner Worlds

There's bad news. I simplified! There are two other factors involved in a full understanding of attention.

First, there's physical effort. We "attend" to situations through action as well as perception. Having gathered enough information about an environment to recognise our best means of survival and worst risk of failure, we may have to bodily take control of those areas.

Of course, our trucker operates his vehicle's controls continuously whilst on the road. Just because this activity is not at the forefront of his mind does not mean that he is unaware of it, only that he is so much more conscious of higher priority areas, especially traffic and the road ahead of him.

Fixing the loose strap on his rig is a case of attending to a situation through physical action.

So far, I've only spoken of the interaction of living organisms with the external environment. But for us humans, who are also self-aware, there is an internal landscape to consider. The mind has its own features-thoughts, emotions, memories, imaginary events, plans, and so on-which may assist us to survive, but occasionally hinder us.

External circumstances may call to mind one or more of these mental "objects", which may or may not be relevant. Any that may have survival value in that situation are slotted into our POP at some level. Both internal and external objectives are interlaced. What we need to think about may be supplanted by something we have to look at or do, and vice versa.

Occasionally, thoughts make themselves known, apparently against our will. Like the TV cop who can't do his job because of flashbacks from the time he accidentally shot his partner, for instance. They are a hindrance to our success and even survival.

The answer to these distractions, which have no business at the forefront of anyone's mind, lies with the balance of the priority scale itself. If there is enough happening at its upper end to occupy our minds and senses fully, they should simply fall off the lower end.

Our trucker is not plagued by bad memories, but his mind is exercised by a number of topics.

  1. His partner and child. He intends to go home after this job for the first time in three weeks.
  2. Where and when he will next take a meal and rest break.
  3. "What ifs" and "rehearsals". As he is engaged in a task which may involve unexpected problems or delays, the driver pictures different scenarios and formulates a response to each, which he may "rehearse" in his imagination . What would he do if he arrived at his destination after office hours? If he were to hit rush-hour traffic up ahead, would he be able to take an alternative route? And so on.

All these thoughts could be found somewhere on the driver's POP. The first two are survival aids because they motivate him. The last is a survival resource because it contains solutions to potential problems, which might come in useful later.

The road becomes busier as the day passes. A shower of rain patters against the cab roof and windscreen. A small spider drops from the ceiling onto the driver's shoulder, runs down the back of his shirt then onto the upholstery and away. The driver hates spiders, but never noticed this one.

Tunnel Vision

The spider demonstrates that, when our attention is fully occupied with the job in hand, we are that much less aware of peripheral events. But, of course, you knew that already from experience.

There is more, however. Whenever we focus our awareness in one direction to scan only a narrow sector of the world, we sacrifice all the other directions we could possibly look, through the remainder of 360 degrees.

That applies not only to the choices we make in the exterior world, but to the inner world of ideas, goals, plans, expectations. As soon as we dedicate ourselves to one particular purpose, it is always at the expense of other potentially exciting and rewarding activities. Just as a consequence of deciding, any curiosity we may have had about at least some of the other possibilities has to remain unsatisfied.

We say that someone whose attention only focuses on a narrow slice of life is taking a "blinkered" view. When horses were the chief mode of transport, "blinkers" were small leather flaps attached to a horse's harness just behind its eyes, which cut down its field of vision so that it could only see ahead and wouldn't be spooked by moving objects beside or behind it.

Taken to extremes, a blinkered attitude becomes "tunnel vision". It sounds all bad, but it's actually a two-edged blade. It has both advantages and disadvantages.

In its favour is that, without distractions, we have the chance to achieve something of long-term value which may make us proud. If irrational fears and anxieties (the spider), morbid thoughts or bad memories are screened out, so much the better. They are unworthy of attention.

Against it is the sacrifice of other opportunities. We no longer have "free rein" (horses again) to follow a whim and see where it leads. More seriously, though, we might be so preoccupied with the job in hand that we don't notice a genuine threat from another direction.

So, as with many things in life, in order to survive and succeed, there is a balance to be struck between extremes. We cannot become so fixated on one thing that we are oblivious to everything else, including things we should know about. On the other hand, if we disperse our efforts trying to span all 360 degrees of the compass, we eventually wind up exhausted, having gone nowhere.

In terms of the priority scale, tunnel vision would have only one item on the list: the first one. The 360 degree approach would list every item at number one!

A Problem of Priorities

In case you need a reminder of the two steps involved in the education process, which I described earlier: step 1 involves obtaining the agreement of students to be taught, and is a prerequisite to step 2, teaching the subject. Is there anything that this perspective on attention does for our understanding of step 1 problems? Could it help educators find a better solution?

It's important to realise that each student in every stream of every year in all schools everywhere in the world has his or her own personal order of priorities. They might not be able to write it down or analyse it, but they will always abide by it in their thoughts, viewpoint and actions.

The combination of priorities and their ranking is different from one person to the next, although they will have items in common. All are prone to instant change from day to day, even moment to moment. They are also very dependant on personal goals, which are specific to the individual and may be consistent, but can be equally changeable.

Teachers also have their goals and preoccupations, of course, probably with more in common amongst themselves, less in common with any of their students. And they, the teachers, are the people tasked with reconciling their priorities with those of every child in the classroom. No wonder they get stressed.

Eyes Front!

Actually, the way in which we each form and maintain a POP is part of a process of education through experience, which could be called intuitive learning. This fits in well with the definition of "attention", given earlier, which can be adapted and expanded as follows:

Attention is the selection of priorities for thought, awareness or effort, motivated by interest or concern, with the purpose of gaining information or exercising control.

Intuitive learning consists of developing enough familiarity and skill relative to those priorities (through attention to them) to gain full control over them, with the ultimate aim of improving the chances of survival or success.

Personally, I retained far more of what I learned intuitively, from real situations, than from my formal education. By "real situations", I mean times and places where there was a genuine risk of personal loss or harm-liabilities-but also the means to protect myself from or overcome those liabilities, i.e. survival assets. I had to identify both liabilities and assets, make them my priorities and, by devoting attention to them, learn to control them.

The classrooms where I studied, on the other hand, were highly unnatural learning environments, in more ways than one. The following is equally true for any classroom:

  1. They are relatively comfortable and unthreatening, unlike the sort of circumstances that would prompt or jolt anyone into seeking more information and control.
  2. Traditional classroom education is based on a single aspect of intuitive learning: perception for the purpose of gaining information. More precisely, the moment when we notice something in our surroundings which may be an asset or liability to survival, and reduce our angle of observation to encompass that objective alone.

If you're unclear on the second point, consider this. In the classroom, all students are seated to face the same direction and expected to restrict their scope of vision to, at most, the 140 degrees ahead of them. That range includes only their teacher, any teaching aids being used, and their own study materials.

In fact, this arrangement is an attempt to enforce a uniform order of priorities on the whole class. The "ideal" (from a traditional educator's viewpoint) scale for every student might look like this:

"Ideal" Student's POP

  1. The teacher (as information source)
  2. Their own study materials
  3. The information received (as ideas)
  4. Any teaching aids

The success of classroom teaching on each student relies on them accepting this scale as their own. The seating orientation actually assumes they will. Some do, some don't-but why should they?

You see, the class-plus-teacher group is preordained by the education system. None of its members joined through affection for the others. Having been assembled, they either grow to like one another and co-operate, or not. Consequently, there is no natural reason why the students' personal priorities should fall in line with what's expected.

Looking at why some students will stoically face front, listen intently, assimilate and mentally process the subject while others will not, we discover a missing ingredient. It's contained in the definition of attention itself.


Those students are easy to teach because they link the study subject somehow with their own survival and specific, personal aims. They are either interested to have information they think might help them or-equally important-concerned to know more about a possible threat or hindrance. They may still have study problems, but they themselves are not a problem that needs solving.

Here's an example from the study of health and welfare of how certain topics relate to survival assets and liabilities:

  1. What foods are healthiest: an aid to survival that might arouse interest in students aiming for a healthy lifestyle.
  2. The effects of an unbalanced diet: an obstacle to survival that should arouse concern and stimulate students to find out more.
  3. How viral infections spread: a possible threat to be concerned with and worth learning more about.
  4. Access to healthcare: a survival resource that ought to be of interest for future reference.

Whichever order of priorities such students might operate on outside school, it doesn't simply vanish at the start of a lesson, to be replaced wholesale by a "study mode" version. Rather, topics of interest would take the uppermost places in the existing scale as they arose in the lesson, shuffling other items downscale.

I've analysed "problem students" into four general categories.

  1. The most difficult to deal with are those, a small minority, who are ostensibly opposed to their own or others' survival. Their goal, declared or unspoken, is failure for themselves and other people. They would refuse anything that might help them improve, and take no heed of potential dangers. Consequently they would be closed to any new information.
  2. Students who aim for survival and success, but link their goals with assets and liabilities found in a very different social environment. Gang culture, for instance. Nothing in the classroom seems to have anything in common with what they know already, so they can't fit it in with their own priorities.
  3. The third group is capable of learning, but has something affecting their lives which is so very interesting, or worrying, that it dominates their priority scale, leaving no room for anything else.
  4. The most accessible of problematic students have positive, if vague, goals, are free of major distractions and open to information, but simply don't see how it could help them achieve their aims, or avoid being booby-trapped.

On the whole question of willingness and openness to learn, the watchword is individuality. Goals and priorities are specific to the individual, and belong to that individual alone.

Motivation is highly dependant on personal factors, different from one individual to the next. However, that fact does not discharge educators from their duty to attempt to motivate in order to educate!

Top of the Class

Exam results were a powerful motivation when I was at school, and still are today. Students are driven by either the desire to do well at exams or the fear of doing badly-fear being the dominant motivator!

A more specific application of this form of pressure was common throughout my schooldays but I suspect may have fallen into disuse now. This is the grading of students by number according to the results of local testing, from "top of the class" at number 1 to "bottom" at, for example, number 29 if the class consisted of 29 students in total.

Those at the top were rewarded with the praise of their teachers and the envy of their peers. Then there would be an inscribed book and the smooth handclasp of a local civic dignitary on Prize Day. Those at bottom of the class were left feeling sheepish, humiliated, disaffected or simply invisible.

The challenge or threat of exams was popular with the educational establishment as a study motivator because it bypassed any consideration either of students' own goals or priorities, or of the actual, practical value of the study material. That made it an easy tool to use for harassed teachers, stressed by the demand for rapid results.

There are several problems with it. It was workable, but only on those who a) saw some chance of achieving a passing grade, and b) were blind to the possibility that some study material might be of no use to them whatsoever in adult life.

The truth is, some of things I was taught were not worth learning, except to answer test questions about them. In Geography, I recall having to learn by rote the names of all the major rivers in India. I didn't know why then, and still don't, but reluctantly complied. Predictably, they featured in the next end-of-term exam.

I realise now that the Geography teacher was just "coasting". He had a neat system of lessons which fed us a pre-digested mix of facts, complemented by tests which only demanded regurgitation of the very same facts.

He was not alone. At that time, a significant proportion of the curriculum was taught in a kind of academic backwater, as if nothing existed outside the school, or beyond the end-of-year exams. Perhaps it still is. This self-contained little world was predominantly the preserve of "the arts".

Distinct from Art, the arts include any subjects not scientific enough to belong in "the sciences". Despite this, they are potentially very valuable. For example, learning a foreign language (as I did with French) has the potential to produce professional translators of written material and interpreters of the spoken word, vital in an era of globalisation.

That was what interested me about the subject. Was it presented to us with that end product in view? Of course not. One day, I was shocked to find myself studying the psychology of characters from 17th century French theatre, which was of no practical use to me whatsoever.

Anyone who happens to enjoy such activities, should do them-in their own time! Researching, teaching or studying them by choice in formal education is little more than pursuing a State-sponsored hobby.

Common reasons for studying the arts are:


  1. In the short term, simply to pass the next exam.
  2. To teach it to the next generation. Fine, as long as you don't mind inflicting on you own students the same lack of practical options later.
  3. To get a well-paid, high-status job through having a university degree. The reasoning here was that a recruiter would be so impressed by evidence that you could achieve or learn anything at all, a job offer was virtually guaranteed.

The third reason may have been true up until the mid 20th century. Not any more. At that point, several global factors coincided. British national wealth from colonial resources collapsed with the Empire, the Far East came of age as a mass-producer of goods, and there was a glut of graduates on the job market.

The consequence of this was that employers were in a position to be more selective-luckily for them, because they had to be. They could no longer afford bumblers fresh from three years of delving into 3rd century BC Roman iambic pentameters.

When the sole purpose of absorbing information is to pass an exam, it is rendered meaningless immediately afterwards and quickly forgotten. In the case of a degree course, that could mean as much as four years' wasted time and effort! No. Using the threat or challenge of exams as motivation to learn is no longer credible. Educators should look elsewhere.

How Hard Can it Be?

Earlier, I listed nine strategies for solving step 1 problems. Here is a reminder of them:

  1. Expulsion of the most disruptive from school
  2. Caning, leg-slapping, knuckle-rapping, etc. by the class- or head-teacher, as a correction to the offender and deterrent to others
  3. Physical manhandling or restraint
  4. Verbal or physical humiliation of students before their peers, on grounds of their behaviour.
  5. Impositions on a student's free time by way of detention or "lines", for example (writing out a phrase or sentence repeatedly)
  6. Threat of more serious penalties
  7. Anger, raised voice, desk-thumping, etc.
  8. Promoting attentive students as an example to be followed.
  9. Gaining the respect of students through the teacher's "presence", good interpersonal skills, etc.

These can now be seen as methods of getting the "ideal" students' order of priorities, mentioned earlier, accepted by every student, with the most severe solutions reserved for the most difficult cases.

More precisely, numbers 7 and below are ways of introducing progressively more danger into the classroom environment. In theory, since the decision on possible disciplinary action lies with the teacher, he or she becomes a priority for students' attention, out of concern for their own safety!

Numbers 8 and 9 make attentive students and the teacher, respectively, objects of interest as models of competence and achievement. Of course, these strategies only apply in classrooms featuring at least one well-behaved student and a competent, successful teacher!

The hope is that the curriculum subject then becomes interesting by association. However, it is only a hope. Like the other strategies, it ducks the issue of how relevant the curriculum itself is to the lives of those required to study it. If it isn't, or doesn't appear to be, they won't.

The Tenth Strategy

However, there is a tenth strategy for obtaining the consent of students to be taught. It isn't mentioned with the other nine as there's a problem with it. Make the lessons really interesting! That is, more interesting, or more concerning, than anything else happening in and around the classroom or rattling about in students' minds.

The problem is, how could the teacher make the curriculum interesting to a student who "won't be taught" anything? Teaching the subject is at step 2, whereas the student is stuck at step 1. The answer is another question. Is it necessary to teach a subject in order to get students interested in it?

Advertising the Subject

It may seem an odd word to use in this context, but "advertising" is in fact entirely appropriate. Since time immemorial, advertising as a practice has had a mixed reputation, due to false claims and promises occasionally made to sell products. However, in its purity, it simply means to "turn (someone) towards (something)". In other words, to persuade someone to look.

How? By doing what salespeople have always done, which is to demonstrate the benefits of acquisition. This applies as plainly to the educator's need to win a student's voluntary commitment to their subject, as it does to the world of commerce.

In this case, though, the thing to have is not a vacuum cleaner or juice extractor, but knowledge. Relevant knowledge, i.e. solutions to problems which students themselves might encounter, is itself a survival asset. With that comment, we come full circle, back to the truth that nothing is more valuable than relevant information.

Taking the theme a step further, survival aids and resources in the environment only become assets when they are known (and so can be used). By contrast, survival threats and obstacles remain liabilities until they are known, then neutralised or avoided.

Nevertheless, it isn't enough for teachers alone to know the wisdom of this approach or see the value of what they have to offer. They must get the message across. That doesn't just mean make it quirky and snappy, with an accompaniment of PowerPoint animations and special effects.

At first, these might stun a whole class into silent awe but, once the novelty had worn off, no amount of gimmicks could lend relevance and usefulness to irrelevant or useless information-if that were the general verdict of the class.

Here, as in the wider world of selling, advertising with honesty is the best policy, otherwise trust is lost. There has to be a genuine advantage to studying the subject! This requirement alone may make the task of promoting some subjects more difficult than expected. Here are a few more points that could make it even harder.

Firstly, the truth that commitment to one path may involve sacrificing all other possibilities applies to all of us, but to students more than most, since schoolwork is exceptionally exclusive of unrelated interests, i.e. it requires a particularly narrow focus. If they are to choose schoolwork as their top priority, they must see enough benefit in it to outweigh the sacrifice.

Secondly, it's not sufficient to say that studying certain subjects may appear pointless now but could come in useful in the future-even if it happens to be true. Students study in the present, not the future, therefore they need present-time motivation.

Finally, the sciences are not exempt from having to be sold, just because they have direct applications in the material world. The value of knowing quadratic equations can be just as obscure as that of memorising the English royal succession from Ethelred the Unready onwards, for instance. (Here's a hint. If you want to be successful with money, make sure you know your arithmetic!)

Teachers might have to undertake a kind of market research to uncover what information students would need and want, that their own specialisation could provide. They would have to do it in person, not as an exercise in form-filling or box-ticking. And the results would have to be real from the student's point of view!

Some educators might have to dig deep to find, in what they teach, anything at all of relevance to their students. A few might conclude that there had never been anything! They might even end up questioning why they had chosen to teach it in the first place.


As I hinted earlier, it's fair comment about what we learn in formal education that, if it has any use at all, it is more likely to be relevant to future situations than to the present. Despite this, it's no surprise that most young people will disregard information if they can't see an instant application for it.

This is because, for the majority, and for many adults, the future is an alien land. It has long been the case with western societies that they guard their children with ferocity, until their very last school or college days, from the merest suggestion that they could have a higher purpose, or a worthwhile career, or a life at all, beyond finishing their education.

Nevertheless, any children who manage to get through school still clinging to some sense of self will each have probably also retained a long-term goal. And, if they have, it will probably be a positive one-i.e. life-enhancing rather than destructive.

Consequently, there is every reason to believe that any teacher who can show a positive relationship between their subject and the achievement of those future goals will gain the co-operation and attentiveness of their students, which was the intention all along.

It's obvious (except to the young, who need to know) that even during childhood, we make decisions that affect the whole of our lives. Somewhere in this statement is an argument for introducing the tenth strategy for Step 1 problems-"Make it Interesting!"-into core education, by turning "Reasons and Goals for Study" into a curriculum subject.

This would officially endorse the truth that the understanding of vision and goals, cause and effect, persistence and achievement is as essential as reading, writing and counting. The fact that these issues are too important to be tackled carelessly is no excuse for neglecting them as "just common sense", or assuming someone else will deal with them.


It is an open question how formal education would be affected if measures of this kind were implemented. I haven't enough information on the subject, haven't even given it enough thought, to make any firm predictions myself. I 'm willing to hazard a few guesses, though.

I imagine that students who are already motivated and interested to learn would continue to do as well or better. Those at the extreme other end of the spectrum, with truly insane purposes ("Wreck Everything!", "Destroy Anything Different!", etc.) would remain inaccessible. Students in the mid-range would be the ones most affected by these changes.

The type disassociated from the education system by an insular cultural background might discover a connection with it, by virtue of its representatives, their teachers, relating it to them rather than just demanding their involvement.

Those who were enmeshed in some overriding preoccupation which left no room for any other interests or concerns, including schoolwork, could find themselves distracted from their entanglement just long enough to begin to participate in group learning. Again, the teacher's interest in them as individuals would be key: just discussing their personal priorities openly or one-to-one could unlock their attention.

Finally, students with woolly-minded, but not unfriendly, aims in life might find that this process crystallised or modified them, or even replaced them with a clearer purpose. Enlightenment, which is what education becomes when done well, can relieve the constant hunger to experience variety which prevents us from focusing sharply on specific objectives.

Notice that this is all about what teachers could do differently rather than how their pupils could be changed. The message for anyone concerned with education is to accept the challenge and responsibility of bringing education to the children, instead of trying to drag them into the system. Most people, including the young, are capable of recognising and welcoming the correct approach!

That is probably true even for the most inaccessible students. I suspect that they might actually respond to the strategy of "Make the Subject Worrying!" in place of "Make it Interesting!"

No doubt other strategies for handling Step 1 teaching difficulties would still be useful and be used, as none of these innovations necessarily replaces them completely, but hopefully they would be less needed.

However, if the apparent need for psychiatric interventions, diagnosis and medication of schoolchildren became a forgotten thing of the past, then all the work involved in implementing these changes would have been worthwhile.



Copyright (c) Charles Moran 2009

If you've found this article interesting or useful, please see my other written work:

Budgeting For Everyone. This is an piece on running a domestic budget, which may be of use to anyone having money problems.

Clutter! This article suggests a practical solution to the problem of a disorganised household.

Peace, Politicians, PR & Promises. The relationship of promises to confidence, and of politicians to war.

This page revised on: 27th August 2010
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