Neuroscience research is yielding useful insights on how we learn. But how can teachers use those findings to improve their teaching practices? Dr David A. Sousa, an expert in educational neuroscience, conducted a workshop for educators on “Translating Brain Research into Classroom Practice” in December 2014. This article reproduces his advice to teachers on how they can help students stay attentive in class.
Getting a brain’s attention is not easy. It requires three systems.
The first is the alerting system, or some signal in the environment that tells the brain, “Hey, I need you, I want your attention!” It tells the brain to suppress everything else that’s irrelevant, and pay attention to the signal. The classic example is the fire alarm. When you hear a fire alarm, no matter what you’re doing, you pretty much pay attention to that!
The second part is the orienting system. That is, the brain says, “OK, I heard the signal. Let’s see if we can get more information.” And you do that by orienting yourself towards the signal to collect more sensory inputs, such as smell or sight. You want to collect more information as the brain has to make a decision.
The third one is, you have to decide. After I’ve gotten all the input, what’s the best response?
Class, Pay Attention!
Imagine the start of a class. Generally, the teacher gives some kind of signal. It could be the ring of a bell, a tap on the whiteboard or simply just talking aloud in hopes that students will stop their conversations, put their cell phones away, and turn to face you.
Let’s say we are in a perfect world and that happens. They face you. Now here comes the critical thing – convincing them that you deserve their attention.
This is the most important part of every lesson. Unlike our time, schooling today is just one of the many things in students’ mind. They have many other diversions now, because of technology and social media, so getting their attention is a lot tougher.
What this means for us is, teachers must have the most convincing objective possible to gain students’ trust that being in the classroom is worthwhile.
Thanks to the advent of technology, getting learners’ attention at the beginning of a lesson has since become a real challenge for teachers. This means that teachers will require a bigger bag of tricks to counter that.
What is the environmental stimulus most likely to get the brain’s attention? What is the brain’s main purpose? Survival! Because the brain’s purpose is to keep you alive, it is always alert to novelty – the unexpected, or anything that the brain perceives as not fitting into the environment. The brain pays attention to it, because it wants to assess whether that novelty is a threat to you.
You might think, “What can possibly happen in my classroom? It’s the safest place on earth!” But having nothing happening in the classroom may only result in boredom among students who are keen observers of their teachers’ teaching habits. They are often able to predict how the lesson will run. That’s why you need to have a bigger bag of tricks, to break that kind of expectations.
Let’s look at what are some of the things you can do.
- Get students to talk. Talking is one of the most powerful memory devices there is. But if teachers are doing all the talking, who’s doing all the remembering? Teachers! That’s why we know our lessons so well. So, we have to give students a chance to talk.
- Use different sources of content to teach. Get students to tell you their personal experiences if they are related to what’s happening in your classroom. Get them to go online. For example, give them 10 minutes to find information online as fast as they can. Have the students go out and interview people that may relate to what you’re talking about in the classroom. Or use other textbooks, not just the one you usually use in class.
- Use different social patterns. Switch the way students talk to one another. Vary that pattern every 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the length of your lesson. There is novelty in a classroom when students are never quite sure what’s coming next, and that’s what makes it fun.
- Use different kinds of activities for learning. For example, one of the most successful practices is what we call flipped instruction. That’s when the students study the materials at home and they come into class the next day and they present the lesson. There’s an old expression: The best way to learn something is to teach it.
- Ask yourself, did actual learning happen? Are the students able to apply what they’ve learned to new situations? That’s what transfer is all about and we have to test for it. One way to do this is to have students develop a test. Let’s say we’re doing a lesson on astronomy that focuses on planets, stars and meteors. They can write the key words down, such as Star, or Orbit, on cards. They then work in groups and pick the cards at random, and they will have to explain what each key word means.
- Use quiz games. Students have to write the questions and also know what the answers are. So who’s doing the learning here? They are! The Internet has lots of examples of such quiz games and you’ll find all kinds of video clips on how to do that.
Laugh and Learn
Then, there’s my favourite one: using humour.
Do not underestimate the power of laughter. It has physiological, psychological and social benefits. When you laugh, you get more oxygen into your bloodstream. More oxygen means more fuel for the brain! When you laugh, you get a pump of endorphins in your bloodstream. Endorphins are the feel-good chemicals, closely related to opium but legal, of course!
How about psychological? That moment of humour of makes students glad to be there. Sometimes, it doesn’t last very long, but at least for a few moments, they feel good to be in the classroom.
What about social? Singapore has lots of different cultures, nationalities and languages. To me, there’re two universal things we can do that cut across all that. One of them is music, and the other is laughter. When kids laugh together, they feel more comfortable with each other. It is the same when they listen to music together.
Because the brain’s purpose is to keep you alive, it is always alert to novelty–the unexpected, or anything that the brain perceives as not fitting into the environment.
– David A. Sousa on how to get students’ attention
Remember with Music
How many of you play music in your classroom? You’d be surprised how powerful music is.
The hippocamus is the part of the brain that is responsible for learning and memory formation. It’s the part that helps make decisions such as: “Do I save this forever?” “Do I put this in long-term storage, or not?”
It is in the limbic system in the brain, which is responsible for emotions. Isn’t that fascinating? The part of the brain that makes the decision about whether to remember something is in the emotional part of the brain, not the rational.
Whenever you can tie emotions to learning, there’s a greater probability it’ll be learned, and more importantly, retained. Music stimulates that the emotional part of the brain, which increases the chance that new learning would be remembered.
And here’s a question that I get all the time: Is technology affecting students’ attention span? I used to say no, but because of what we now know of the brain’s plasticity, maybe over time, there will be a change. What is definitely changing, however, is that the demands on our attention has increased. Students’ attention span isn’t changing. What’s changing would be their choices. They have e-mail, cell phones, gaming, social media, and among all these things that are demanding their attention, school is just one thing. You can see why our job is tough—we’ve got lots of competition.