Gnats and Attention Spans

It's great to have people starting to engage with the debate about Cyclical School. 700+ people have now read the first post 'Rotas and Cyclical School' which, as my teenage daughter observed, is "more than just a bunch of friends on Facebook" (Thanks, Hannah). And 1300 people have been on the website. One of the distinguishing features of Cyclical School (CS) is that lessons are just 20 minutes long because you've got to get about 14 of them into one day. Overwhelming, perhaps? Christopher David thought so. But at least it got me thinking about how long people can concentrate. And so, your Honour, I present my defence ...

Gnats, so we are told, have an attention span of around 3.4 seconds. That's about as long as it takes to pour yourself a cup of tea. Goldfish are also notoriously absent-minded, and fare little better, although mine always swam to the surface when I switched the aquarium lights on, suggesting that they made some kind of Pavlovian link between lights and the arrival of fish flakes. Dogs, it is said, are most receptive to training when it is broken up into 'chunks' of around fifteen minutes.

But what about people? If something holds no interest for me, I can normally stick at it for about 20 minutes. In order to stay focused on the washing up after dinner, for example, I always tackle it at 7.00 pm when I can also listen to The Goon Show on Radio 4 Extra. Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan keep me going with the scouring pad and scrubbing brush which, alone, would not engage me sufficiently to keep me on task. In fact, I am often so engaged with The Goons that I make a terrible job of washing up, leaving streaks and stains on the pots, pans, and cutlery.

Strangely, the average attention span of a teenager with regard to a subject they find moderately engaging is also about twenty minutes. I know from experience as a piano teacher that this is all a beginner can cope with, so their lessons are twenty minutes long. Taylor Coon writes on Quora "...on most topics, my attention span is about 20 minutes making school work hard to do when I have 45 minutes classes and 1 1/2 hour doubles" ( We can, however, choose to re-engage for further periods of around twenty minutes. And if we do so, we can string out long chains of twenty-minute 'chunks' that can last for hours. As Taylor says "... if you get me focused on something I like or something I am passionate about or something that I enjoy and find easy, I can concentrate on it and focus on it for hours and not get bored or try to find something else to do."

It is certainly the case that our attention spans are shortening. Otherwise, why would the average length of a pop record be a little over three minutes? The average scene on EastEnders - of which there are typically 10-15 an episode that must last exactly 27 minutes and 15 seconds - comes in at 130.8 seconds or just over two minutes. Sessions at a 'speed dating' event typically last between three and eight minutes, although some extend to ten minutes. And, according to an article on BBC News "In the always-connected world of social media, smartphones and hyperlinks in the middle of everything you read, it can feel that much harder to stay focused."

So, maybe, there is a future for the twenty-minute lesson? After all, pasta used to cook in 10-12 minutes but you can get 'quick-cook' pasta now that takes just six. Yesterday I even microwaved a frozen 'ready-baked' potato in four minutes flat, rather than wait over an hour for one to cook in the proper oven. But, as for my broccoli plants, it's going to be a few months yet of patient watering and weeding. There are even signs of actual green beans on the bean plants now, but I doubt I shall eat them until September.

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