Tuesday, July 19, 2011

May I have your attention please!

The neurology of attention is fascinating.

The brain has two information filters:  the Reticular Activating System and the Amygdala.  During a single second our five senses send 400 billion bits of sensory data to our brain.  Talk about touching a live wire!  If all that data hit our nervous system at one time, it would account for a major neurological shut down (in the time it took you to read this paragraph your five senses inundated your brain with 4 trillion bits of data!)

Fortunately our Reticular Activating System (RAS), the first and most primitive sensory input filter - located where the spinal cord enters the brain, filters those 400 billion bits of separate data into a manageable 2,000 bits per second.  Then, with the help of the amygdala and limbic system, the brain can filter the information further so that only the most important sensory inputs gain entry into the higher corticol function.

It seems that gifted students may have an even more efficient filtering system.  There brains are able to tell their RAS to inhibit irrelevant data at a higher rate while selecting certain patterns of data to pass through.  Unfortunately that means if a gifted students finds their teacher irrelevant they have a much more refined system of tuning them out.

What are the implications of student tune out?  For the short term, they miss important information and score poorly on an assessment.  Worse, with time, they develop large gaps in their learning and are unable to demonstate mastery of what we would consider to be basic skills.

Lets start our school year off on the right foot and keep in mind some key ideas that will allow us to sneak past our students RAS's and grab their attention:

Make sure your are pre-assessing your units of study and allowing students who show mastery of the material the chance to either move faster or dig deeper.  There is research that shows gifted learners will develop filters to tune out lessons that are slow, repetitive, or offer no creative thinking.  I feel their pain, I have already sat through my share of tedious staff development sessions.

Vary Sensory Stimuli
The RAS is very attuned to changes in the environment.  Your most valuable tools in keeping your students attention are surprise and novelty.  You don't have to be a game show host (though I think it is very important to let your personality shine in the classroom), you can do simple things like change your voice - tone, volume or rhythm.  Stand on a chair to get your students attention, use bright colors, movement or size (an excellent presentation source can be found at Prezi.com).

At optimal conditions you can only expect to hold a persons attention span 80% of the time.  So for a fifty minute class, in optimal conditions, I could hope to have full attention for forty minutes.  And that is with group work, reflections, discussions, movement and every other brain friendly teaching technique I have in my toolbox.  Be realistic, expect children, especially gifted learners, to need a break so they can ponder and think about what is going on in class.

The Virtuous Cycle
Harvard Professor Theresa Amabile is the new mythbuster of creativity.  Her research is busting six long standing myths about creativity in general.  One of the myths she breaks down is fear forces breakthroughs.  Anyone who has studied their Maslow knows that fear, sadness and anger diminish ones ability to learn.  Amabile continues that thinking by showing how most creative breakthroughs occur if a person was happy the day before the breakthrough.  "There's a kind of virtuous cycle. When people are excited about their work, there's a better chance that they'll make a cognitive association that incubates overnight and shows up as a creative idea the next day. One day's happiness often predicts the next day's creativity," said Amabile.

So to keep their attention you need to watch your pace, vary the sensory stimuli in your room, at your best you won't have all of their attention all of the time, and build a supportive community of learners.

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