What is the heaviest weight you can lift? How long can you hold it up? Paying attention (to what someone else feels is important) is like trying to lift a heavy weight. And yet how much time is spent in school asking children to “pay attention?” Granted, chaos is not the answer and we can’t just let kids do anything they feel like—so what CAN we do to get them to listen to us? First let’s look at what neuroscience tells us about attention.
According to Eric Jensen, “getting attention ought to be the exception—not the rule.” He says, “What if we’re placing inappropriate and often unreasonable demands on students, and the more that a teacher has a student’s attention, the less genuine learning can happen?” Interesting questions…
Brain research informs us that there are two main purposes for attention: To help us survive or to maintain an enjoyable activity. So why should we pay attention in school? Do most students really understand or care that what they are doing might help them be successful someday? Too often we threaten them—“Listen to me or you will not survive today (much less tomorrow)!” This may get their attention but research also tells us how hard it is to learn when we are under stress. Much better is to try the other motivation—make learning fun (or at least interesting). Some ideas:
1. Keep the instructions short and sweet. Don’t talk for over 10 minutes at a time without interspersing active participation and/or time to reflect. Ask students to write something down, give an opinion to a partner, huddle and confer in a small group, hold up a sign or signal to indicate understanding or opinion, etc.
2. Indicate you need attention by having a special and consistent indicator (and try using more than one modality.) Hold up a hand or a sign, flicker the lights, hoist a flag or put on a hat. Clap, play a short melody on a xylophone, blow a horn, or even begin whispering, singing or speaking in a strange accent. Whisper instructions to two who must whisper to two others and so on. I used to command attention at the beginning of class by asking loudly, “Can you do this?” and proceeding to straighten one arm and move my elbow back and forth without turning my wrist or hand. (Try it!)
3. Use different ways to give instruction. Say it, write it where it can be seen, put it on the computer, pass out notes, tape or video record it, etc. “Blended instruction” is actually a new take on this idea. Another practice that ranks high on the “retention pyramid” is to use “jigsaw” and other cooperative learning techniques that get the students to teach each other—and learn more.
4. Provide opportunities for choice instead of offering rewards and punishments. When a student can “write it OR draw it,” “tell it OR act it out,” “diagram OR model it,” he is able to use his most expressive way to demonstrate understanding.
5. Most importantly, teach concepts that make sense and have real relevance to the students. To do this, you must understand each child’s strengths and interests and begin there—not just with the subject you want to teach.
Neuroscience tells us that we are about six times more attentive to what is going on inside our own heads than to what someone else is trying to tell us. Sustained, enforced attention is not natural or productive. Let’s try something new!