Parents and educators are often heard to remark that technology seems to have shortened their children's attention spans. They're right. Many studies now show that not only our children, but we also, are becoming just skimmers and scanners of text, unwilling to spend the time to read deeply and think critically. As Nicholas Carr explores in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the constant distractions and hyperlinks on the Internet kidnap our conscious thought and cannibalize our comprehension. How, then, can we hold our students' attention when their thoughts are so easily scattered?
What the Brain Pays Attention To
Our brains are concerned with only two things: desire and need. Before our students walk into our classrooms, and before we walk into any workshop, we are thinking, "Do I want to know this information?" and "Do I need to know this information?" With children, and yes, probably us too, "want" is more powerful than need. Humans are normally ruled more by our emotions than by logic. Consequently, our students need to be told explicitly the relevance of any information they're about to consume. Simply saying that, "Oh, someday you'll use this" doesn't matter to kids who live in the present moment.
How Long Will the Brain Pay Attention?
Our brains can only hold a limited amount of new information. As Daniel Willingham notes in his book, Why Don't Students Like School, the fundamental bottleneck of comprehension and retention is our limited working memory. Here's an example of that bottleneck.
Multiply these two numbers in your head: 8 X 63. As a former English major I realize that may have been a bit taxing for a few of us, but I bet most of you came up with 504.
Now, multiply these two numbers in your head: 135,923 X 4,589. Okay, you're smiling because it's ludicrous to think you can do that. You've just run into the limits of short-term or working memory. You can't remember all the numbers to "carry over" and then add up.
Neuroscientists such as John Medina now understand that the brain can take only about 10 minutes of new information. As he says in his book Brain Rules, after 10 minutes of new information, the brain needs something to "reset the clock." The best things are something emotional and relevant to what's being studied. But why 10 minutes? What happens at that point that keeps us from comprehending more new data?
The Yellow Balls
The brain makes sense of the world by connecting new information to what is already known. If I were to start writing in Russian, and you didn't know the language, you'd lose all comprehension. Your brain has no Russian to connect the new data to. These connections are made between neurons as the brain searches for related data.
Right now your brain is turning these words into an electric impulse that runs down the axon to the "foot" of a neuron. [See my roughly drawn picture below]. As many of you know, there is a space between two neurons called the synapse, or synaptic cleft. In order for the information to continue to connect to previous knowledge, it must get across that space. Here is where the 10 minutes comes into play.
In the foot of the neuron sending the information are little yellow balls. These balls are filled with neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that can carry information. When the electric impulse hits these yellow balls, they explode. The neurotransmitters, which carry the same information but now in chemical form, fly across the synapse, and in a microsecond, find the exact hole on the next neuron to attach itself and pass the information along.
Guess what? After 10 minutes there are no more yellow balls. So you can just keep talking and talking and talking, but you are wasting everyone's time. There is no method of passing the information to the next neuron. And that's when our students lose their focus. Here's how Judy Willis explains it in her book, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning.
"When students are entering a state of depletion of neuro-transmitters in their synapses, they will become fidgety, distracted, and unfocused." In other words, look out for that spitball or expect to find David out of his seat.
How Do We Keep the Kids Playing Ball?
All a teacher or parent has to do at this point is to stop providing new information, and instead provide a short brain break to allow the first neuron to "reuptake" the neurotransmitters and refill the yellow balls. Judy Willis calls it giving your brain a very short "syn-nap." But what kind of brain breaks are best? Remember that John Medina said the best activities to "reset the clock" are emotional and relevant, so it's best to do an activity that reteaches the new information but also uses different senses than just sitting and listening. The more senses a student uses, the greater the imprint on the brain. So get students up. Have them find a partner across the room within 10 seconds and then play some sort of review game. Or the night before, search on the Internet for short videos about the topic that can reteach what you just taught in a much more dramatic and visual way.
Students may be more easily distracted than ever before, but we know more about how the brain learns than ever before, so let's use this knowledge for keeping their attention and keep them in the "yellow ball game."
Dr. McBride will be presenting next month at the National Catholic Educational Association annual convention in St. Louis—Wednesday, April 19 at 3:15 PM.